Chapter Sixteen: The End of England as it was in 1066


So, we have come, finally, to the end of the road that took us on our journey to the Battle of Hastings. By the end of December, William was now Harold’s successor,  refusing to acknowledge Harold’s reign at all. William, the Bastard of Normandy, had finally got his wish: to rule the most coveted kingdom in the world. In his lifetime, William had managed to achieve what might have been to some lesser resilient  men, an impossible dream. As a young boy  he endured dangers that no child should have to suffer, with attempts being made on his life and having to hide in peasants hovels. As a young man, he fought for the right to rule his duchy, and later he had to endure the king of France’s treachery, leading invasions into his Norman territories. The king of France had once been William’s protector and ally, but had betrayed him, joining forces with Geoffrey Martell, who had once been their mutual enemy.

William and his brothers


By the time he reached his prime, well into his thirties, he had been able to assert power in Normandy and drew Brittany into his enclave. It was about this time, that he must have begun thinking about the supposed ‘promise’ that William had perceived that his cousin, Edward, King of England, had offered him. Whether Edward had been flippant, or had been manipulated into agreeing to make William his heir, or whether William had believed that Edward had agreed, or whether Edward had agreed, then later changed his mind, we will never know, but the evidence that Eadmer gives us is very telling. Personally, I believe there may have been some manipulation of Edward during that visit in the autumn of 1051, by both William, and Robert Champart, then Archbishop of Canterbury. In later years, as the Norman regime began to dwindle in power in England, I think it is fair to say that Edward’s influences were erring more to the English and we see how William had also used cunning to manipulate Harold into swearing an oath to support his claim.

King Edward
Edward the Confessor


Edward was a weak king in many ways, but in others he was stubborn, and strong willed. He had only been able to assert himself over his nobles, on one occasion when he had the whole of the Godwin family exiled; and his queen, Godwin’s daughter, banished to a nunnery. It didn’t take the  other English nobles long to be alarmed at Edward’s growing faction of Norman officials and they refused to resist Godwin’s return from exile, compelling Edward to reinstate the family back into power. Edward had never forgotten the part Godwin had played in the death of his brother, Alfred, who was brutally blinded by agents acting for Harold Harefoot and for whom Godwin had been serving at the time. Although Godwin had protested his innocence, and had been proclaimed innocent by a jury of twelve men, Edward would forever hold him responsible.  It was at an Easter feast that Edward was to bring up the subject of the death of Alfred again, and Godwin, frustrated at having the accusation flung in his face once more, was beset by a stroke, dying a few days later. Edward, hopefully because he was feeling guilty, offered the family his own personal apartments to nurse him in.


The earldom of Wessex, was then passed on to Harold, which left East Anglia free to be  Alfgar of Mercia’s once more. As his father’s successor, Harold was able to start asserting his own authority in the once ancient kingdom. Wessex was a powerful and wealthy earldom and Harold was able to endorse his rise to power by becoming the king’s right hand man.

William was obviously of the belief that he was in line for the throne, but Edward had not confirmed this by the time he was dead, although William would have everyone believe that he had sent the powerful earl of Wessex, (Harold) with gifts and a message that Edward had not forgotten his promise of all those years ago. And this was their insistence, despite the fact that Edward had sent a mission to Europe to search for his nephew, Edward the Exile so that he could have an heir of the same blood as The House of Wessex. Therefore, if anyone should have been in line for the throne, it should have been Edward the Exile’s son, Edgar the Atheling. William did not seem to have any regard for anyone else’s claim, rightful or not.


But it was Harold Godwinson, King Edward’s brother-in-law, who got the job in the end, though Edward seems to have enjoyed keeping everyone in the dark until he was on his deathbed. It was most likely that in an effort to stop the succession of William, the Witan accepted Harold’s claim, or they may have persuaded him sometime before Edward’s death, and had him crowned as soon as possible. Edgar’s claim seems to have not even been considered, and with the storms brewing south of the channel and from the north, it seemed sensible to choose a man who had been tried and tested and found not wanting. Harold, though not as experienced in warfare as William, nor was he as ruthless, was the most experienced of the English nobles, not only in battle tactics, but also in diplomacy and politics. Why would they have picked a young, untried boy over a man such as he?

It is quite clear that the English had no desire to have William rule them. He was a Norman through and through, and if Harold was not of royal blood himself, he was still an Englishman, born of an English father and a Danish mother, which might also endear him to those who lived in the Danelaw. The Normans were very different from the English, and the Anglo-Danes. At least those who were of Danish descent had a common culture and law code, they could understand each other, they shared a common history. The Normans, despite their Scandinavian blood, were completely alien to the men and women of England, sharing no such common history with the English and had absorbed French culture and law so much into their psyche, that they had become more French than Norse by 1066. One can see that to an Englishman, common or noble, it would be far more desirable to be ruled by someone who understood their language, their customs and their needs. And Harold had seen the ruthlessness of the Normans in action, had been on campaign with William into Brittany whilst he was there in 1064, in the hope that he could free his kin from William’s bondage. Instead, Harold had been manipulated by William, having no choice but to become William’s vassal, selling himself into the bargain in return for his freedom, and only succeeding in returning to England with Hakon, his nephew, and not with Wulfnoth. Harold’s youngest brother, Wulfnoth, was to stay in the care of William, remaining a hostage until Harold had secured William on the throne. One cannot imagine the torment that outcome must have had on Harold, whose intentions in going to Normandy had been entirely for a different reason. Later, when he took the crown, he knew his brother’s fate to be sealed. Whether Harold lived or died, Wulfnoth would never be free.

Harold swears oath to William on holy relics


And as events led to Hastings, culminating in the death of England’s chosen king, those who were waiting in London to hear the outcome of the battle, would look to their boy king, Edgar Edwardson, grandson of Edmund Ironside of the House of Wessex. Would things have turned out differently if Harold had supported Edgar as regent? Most likely not. William would still have come for his crown, and Hardrada, too, would still have come. With Edgar on the throne, William would still have laid his claims, despite Edgar’s  being the stronger. After all, he paid no mind to Edgar, even though the lad had been proclaimed king, post Hastings, by the surviving English. Such was this Norman invader’s arrogance, he would dismiss the claims of a boy whose right was greater than his own, and proclaim himself the true, righteous king, chosen by God; for had he not the papal banner that proved God was on his side? Edgar, it seems, was soon dropped by those who had raised him up to be king, in favour of the Conqueror. The boy who would be king, never had a chance.

English swineherds


William, however, was not loved by the English. He spent the first five years of his rule putting down rebellion after rebellion. Soon, there would be scant numbers of English nobility and most official administration posts, both secular and ecclesiastic would be taken up by newly appointed foreigners. French only would be spoken at court by the ruling classes who saw the spoken English as far too rustic for their tongues. English was soon exchanged for Latin, which became the language of the clerics, where English had once been used freely. But one thing that didn’t change, were the people of England themselves, who forever remained and would remain as English as they had always been.

Primary Sources 

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Barlow F. (2003) The Godwins, Pearson Education LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

Swanton M. (2000)  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (new ed) Phoenix Press, Great Britain.

Walker I (2004)  Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.

The Shifting Sands of Succession: Guest Post from Robert Bayliss

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.

William prepares for invading

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.


William and Harold
William comes to Harold’s rescue

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.”


Harold makes his oath to  William

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.

King Edward
Edward the Confessor

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.

The Death of Godwin
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.

Harold sets out to Normandy
Harold and his crew set out for Normandy

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.

Norman knights charging up the hill
Norman knights charge up the hill at Hastings

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