Christmas 1065: A Brother’s Betrayal, A King Lays Dying and a New King is Chosen.

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– I am proud to add my contribution to this year’s wonderful Christmas Blog Hop Event from the Historical Writers Forum. See more participants future and past below –

King Edward, later coined as The Confessor king,  and although he does achieve a canonization, he is awarded the nomenclature ‘Confessor’ rather than a sainthood, more due to his supposed piety rather than any martyrdom. For Edward, the early ‘winter’ months that we would now refer to as autumn or fall, was a time for hunting, eating well, and pursuing more leisurely sports rather than the serious business of running a kingdom, time off which he deserved as a hardworking monarch. After all, he had spent all year dealing with various administration issues and the petty squabbles of the lesser nobles in his kingdom even sometimes having to endure a conflict or two along the Welsh borders. But in September of the year 1065, the king who’d  hitherto reigned for twenty three years, was beset by a northern rebellion, resulting in the exile of Tostig Godwinson, reputed to be the king’s favourite. It would be important to note that Tostig was also the queen’s favourite brother, she being a Godwin also, with many siblings.

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It was Tostig’s brother, Harold Godwinson who had forced Edward’s hand in exiling his beloved champion. Harold had been sent on king’s orders to deal with the northern rebels. These men had never really wanted a southerner as Earl for their realm of Northumbria, and Tostig had met much opposition in his ten years as their lord, often complaining and revolting at his harsh line in taxes and his dealings with them, but now the excrement had really hit the fan and they wanted him out and instead were demanding as their new earl, Morcar, the son of the late Alfgar of Mercia. Morcar, just a young teenager at the time, would be an easier piece of clay to mold to their ways than Tostig had been. Edwin, Morcar’s  older brother, the Earl of Mercia, also young and pliable, was enlisted to support his brother’s cause. They marched south, causing havoc in their wake and here is where Harold played his hand,  in getting rid of his brother, Tostig. Not willing to see the kingdom ripped asunder on behalf of his brother, Harold  chose the Mercian brothers cause instead of Tostig, after a scene where he accuses his brother of betrayal, leaves the kingdom, an outcast.

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Harold and Tostig fighting at Edward’s court when they were boys

Edward was devastated. He was shattered by his counsellors’ refusal to use arms to restore Tostig to his office.  Harold’s refusal to help Tostig must have felt like perfidy, though to Harold, it would have been the sensible thing to do. To encourage a civil war at such a time when Harald Hardraada was looking to expand his Norwegian empire by adding England to it would have been pure folly. The loss of Tostig, seems to have broken Edward and,  as expounded by the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he ‘became so ill, his mind was affected until his death’.  With Tostig’s outlawing, Edward was to suffer the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death.

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There must have been a strange tinge of unease and trepidation to the Christmas preparations of those following weeks that Edward took to his sick bed. Up until the Tostig episode, Edward, though aged, had been quite robust and still able to go hunting in his favourite hunting ground, the Forest of Dean. Harold had been building a hunting lodge in Archenfield, the land he had conquered from Gruffudd as a result of  his and Tostig’s joint incursion into Wales two years before. It was said that Harold had been intending to gift the hunting lodge to the king, therefore Edward had at that time, been of stout heart and mind. But an unfortunate incident was to foil Harold’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the king: in August, 1065, Welsh raiders burned the lodge to the ground and slaughtered all the workers there.

There are a number of theories that we could speculate upon as to what might have influenced Harold in his decision making when he mediated for the king with the Mercian brothers, one that Harold might have believed that Tostig, jealous of Harold, had paid the Welsh to burn the lodge. Harold, jealous of his brother in return, might have felt that he needed to usurp his brother as king’s favourite and wanted to gift the king this lodge in order to do so. Therefore when a month later the northern rebellion occurred, Harold might have seen an opportunity for revenge and thereby backed the earls instead of Tostig, getting rid of a possible obstacle in Edward’s favour. This is all speculation of course. The Godwin brothers were renown for squabbling. Perhaps Harold felt he deserved better, perhaps the evidence is just circumstantial. Who knows. But it is interesting none the less. I must say that Harold’s refusal to back Tostig, his own brother, is very telling and you may make of it what you will.

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Tostig’s removal from the kingdom, coincided with the start of Edward’s illness which seems to have been the trigger. The king began to worsen as the following weeks went by. As Christmas approached, it must have been clear that Edward was not going to recover from such a serious illness. He was on his way out and not coming back. And something had to be done.

One would hardly imagine that a kingdom’s administration would have been totally unprepared for such an event such as the king’s demise. With possible war on the horizon, it would barely seem rational that plans for the aftermath of Edward’s passing had not been made. The speed with which Harold was crowned Edward’s successor was obviously a fait accompli. So, whilst Edward lay sick in his bed in those weeks after Tostig’s departure, the wise men of the kingdom, the witan, must have come up with a plan. Most likely this would also have included the queen, who, according to Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi, was said to have loved Tostig and hated Harold. Because of the nature of Tostig’s downfall and Harold’s perceived refusal to help him, she probably did hold a grudge against him and may not have been happy with the decision to enthrone him,  but he was her best chance of surviving as an influential player in this Anglo-Saxon Game of Thrones. She would have been able to remember what had happened to her predecessor, Emma of Normandy, whose power greatly diminished when her second husband died.

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During this time, Harold would have been garnering support amongst the most significant members of the nobility. With Earls Leofric, and  Ælfgar now passed, it was now up to Harold to curry favour with Ælfgar’s teenage sons, Edwin and Morcar. To some extent he’d already done so by support in Morcar’s appointment to Northumbria. It seems likely that they must have been in some sort of negotiation with Harold regarding a marriage alliance with their sister, Aldith, the widow of the deposed Welsh King, Gruffudd. This meant Harold would have had to put aside his long time wife Edith Swanneck. One must wonder how this felt for both of them. It does appear though, that perhaps they did continue their relationship, as the story goes that Edith was his go to when he stopped in Waltham on his way back to London from Stamford Bridge.

How the young earls  felt about Harold, whose clan was often at odds with their own, we cannot know, but they might recall that Harold’s negotiations during the Welsh problems had always led to their father being reinstated and back in power. I suspect that if Edward had had his way, Ælfgar wouldn’t have been. Harold’s main gripe seems to have been against Gruffudd, and once Ælfgar was dead, he and Tostig piled into Wales and devastated it from south to north and probably encouraged the ousting and execution of Gruffudd by his own men! Of course that was in the good old days when they were friends – Harold and Tostig that is.

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Its quite likely that Morcar and Edwin would have supported Harold in his quest for the kingship that Christmas, and perhaps thrown in their sister, Aldith, as part of the deal. Of course, all the other earls were Godwins too – Leofwine and Gyrth – who were Harold’s younger brothers after Tostig. There can be no doubt who they would have supported. But as an aside, we must not forget young Waltheof, a fledgling earl, whose father had been Siward the Strong, Earl of Northumbria before Tostig was appointed.  He had been too young to take up his father’s mantle in Northumbria when the old man left this world. Now he was around fifteen, sixteen, and had been given some responsibility as Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, perhaps in preparation for higher status. Amongst the other members of the witan would have been archbishops Stigand and Ealdred, both Godwin supporters, not to mention the leading bishops and abbots, and abbesses also, and other leading wealthy and powerful noblemen from the shires up and down the kingdom. With the witan’s seal on the table, all Harold really needed now as a stamp of approval was for Edward to express his consent, something that would be needed when the time came to argue the case against William.

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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 Edward was dying, for he had always been quite 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,  but he had never shown signs of serious weakness of health issues unto then, and to know that their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all for although he’d been in ill health since that fateful day in October when Tostig was exiled, it would have taken some time for the news to reach the length and breadth of England before Christmas.

At first, Edward had seemed to recover from the initial onset of illness but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow he managed to attend the Christmas Day service, attending the celebrations though quite unwell. 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 Abbey of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so on the eve of the king’s dying, there had been no proclaimed heir apparent who would take the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath.

One might have thought that the Aetheling Edgar would have been a contender, but he seems to have been out of sight and mind, not listed as being at court that Christmas. He may have been finishing his education elsewhere, perhaps in Winchester in the household of the queen in her dower lands. It is not known, but he might have been put forward at the witanemegot, but it was hardly likely that he would have won their vote, for he was only young, somewhere between twelve and fourteen years old. Harold could have acted as regent , much in the way he’d acted as Edward’s first minister. If it was considered, it was obviously not the outcome anyone wanted. England’s powers that were, wanted a strong, experienced man and not an untried boy in charge, regardless of who was pulling the strings. Harold may have felt he deserved the crown, after his loyalty and hard work to attain precedence over all others during his career. To save England from what was coming, the crown may have been the deal.

It seems sad now to think that poor Edward was approaching his death right when he needed to stay alive to see his precious church of St Peter – Westminster Abbey – at last consecrated. The church had been his life’s work. His darling. His precious. And now there he was – dying. They say that when people are at the end of their lives, they somehow find the strength to stay for that special arrival, or occasion. My own father had been more-or-less unconscious all week until my brother flew in from Australia to see him and then he perked up for a day before sadly taking his leave from us the next day. This could be said of Edward, who managed to find the strength to see Christmas through in his new Romanesque-style church but not the final consecrated on the 28th December. He certainly must have struggled those last days, for evidently he was unable to partake much of his food, and after Christmas day, he took to his bed and never arose again. By the time the twelve days of Christmas was over, he was gone from this world and the Kingdom of England had a new king, one not chosen because he had the blood of Wessex, but because he was the most competent man at the time.

 

6th Dec Jen Black a Viking Christmas

8th Dec Derek Birks: The Christmas Lord of Misrule

9th Dec Jennifer C. Wilxon: A Very Kindred Christmas

11th Dec Janet Wertman: Christmas at the Tudor Court

12 Dec  Margaret Skea: Britain’s Little Ice Age

13th Dec Sue Barnard: A Light in the Darkness

14th Dec Cathie Dunn: Charlemagne – A Political Christmas

15th Dec Lynn Bryant: Colby Fair: A Manx Christmas

16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson: The Giving of Gifts

17th Dec Nicky Moxey: Christmas Giving in 1181

18th Dec Nancy Jardine: AD 210 25TH December Worship

19th Dec Wendy Dunn: Christmas at the Tudor Court – Excerpt from A Light in the Labyrinth

20th Dec Judith Arnopp: A Tudor Christmas

21st Dec Tim Hodkinson: A Viking Christmas

22nd   Vanessa Couchman: The Unofficial Truce of Christmas 2014 

23rd Christine Hancock: A Meeting in the Snow

24th Paula Lofting https://paulaloftinghistoricalnovel.worpress.com

25th Alex Marchant https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com

 

Guest Post: The Two Women in the life of Harold II by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Harold Godwinson was born around 1022 and did more in the 44 years he was on this earth, than most people could achieve in 3 lifetimes. He received the earldom of East Anglia in 1044 and, as the son of Godwin, earl of Wessex, he succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1053. His sister was the wife of King Edward the Confessor, his brother was the earl of Northumberland (for a time). Harold was not only one of the king’s foremost earls but also one of his most respected advisors. In short, the Godwinsons were the most powerful family in the kingdom, after the king himself. At one point Harold, along with his father and brothers, had been exiled from England after quarrelling with the king. He is even said to have sworn an oath to back William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne in the likely event that Edward the Confessor died without an heir; a claim that William used to the full in order to secure papal approval for his invasion of England. However, when it came to the moment of truth; when Edward the Confessor died, it was Harold who took the throne and prepared to defend England against the rival claimants of Norway and Normandy.
But what of the women in his life? Harold’s queen was Ealdgyth, the widow of Gruffydd and daughter of Aelfgar – and sister of Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively. The marriage was a judicious one which gave Harold powerful allies in the guise of Ealdgyth’s two brothers. However, Ealdgyth was not the first woman in Harold’s life, nor, indeed, the most important.
For twenty years Harold had been living with the wonderfully-named Eadgyth Swanneshals (Edith the Swan-neck). History books label her as a Harold’s concubine, but Edith was no weak and powerless peasant, so it’s highly likely they went through a hand-fasting ceremony – or ‘Danish marriage’ – a marriage, but not one recognized by the church, thus allowing Harold to take a second ‘wife’. Harold and Edith had at least 6 children together; including four sons, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus and Ulf and two daughters, Gytha, who married Vladimir Monomakh, Great Prince of Kiev, and Gunnhild, who was intended to become a nun at Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire before going on to marry a Breton knight.
Harold met Edith the Swan-neck at about the same time he became earl of East Anglia, in 1044. Which makes it possible that Edith the Swan-neck and the East Anglian magnate, Eadgifu the Fair, are one and the same. Eadgifu the Fair held over 270 hides of land and was one of the richest magnates in England. The majority of her estates lay in Cambridgeshire, but she also held land in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk; in the Domesday Book Eadgifu held the manor at Harkstead in Suffolk, which was attached to Harold’s manor of Brightlingsea in Essex and some of her Suffolk lands were tributary to Harold’s manor of East Bergholt. While it is by no means certain that Eadgifu is Edith the Swan-neck, several historians – including Ann Williams in the Oxford Database of National Biography – make convincing arguments that they were. Even their names, Eadgifu and Eadgyth, are so similar that the difference could be merely a matter of spelling or mistranlation; indeed, the abbey of St Benet of Hulme, Norfolk, remembers an Eadgifu Swanneshals among its patrons. [1]
Despite their twenty years and six children together, in 1065, with the king’s health deteriorating, it became politically expedient for Harold to marry in order to strengthen his position as England’s premier earl and, possibly, next king. Ealdgyth was the daughter of Alfgar, earl of Mercia, and, according to William of Jumieges, very beautiful. She was the widow of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, King of Gwynedd from 1039 and ruler of all Wales after 1055, with whom she had had at least one child, a daughter, Nest. Gruffudd had been murdered in 1063, following an expedition into Wales by Harold himself. Harold’s subsequent marriage to Ealdgyth not only secured the support of the earls of Northumbria and Mercia, but also weakened the political ties of the same earls with the new rulers of north Wales.
As Harold’s wife Ealdgyth was, therefore, for a short time, queen of England. However, with Harold having to defend his realm, first against Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September of 1066 and, subsequently, against William of Normandy at Hastings, it is unlikely Ealdgyth had time to enjoy her exalted status. At the time of the Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066, Ealdgyth was in London, but her brothers took her north to Chester soon after. Although sources are confused it seems possible that Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a son, Harold Haroldson, within months of the battle. Unfortunately, that is the last we hear of Ealdgyth; her fate remains unknown. Young Harold grew up in exile on the Continent and died in 1098.
Despite his marriage to Ealdgyth, however, it seems Edith the Swan-neck remained close to Harold and it was she who was close by when the king faced William of Normandy at Senlac Hill near Hastings. She awaited the outcome alongside Harold’s mother, Gytha. Having lost a son, Tostig, just two weeks before, fighting against his brother and with the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Gytha lost three more sons – Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine – and a nephew in the battle at Hastings.

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It is heart-wrenching, even now, to think of Edith and the elderly Gytha, wandering the blood-soaked field in the aftermath of the battle, in search of the fallen king. Sources say that Gytha was unable to identify her sons amidst the mangled and mutilated bodies. It fell to Edith to find Harold, by undoing the chain mail of the victims, in order to recognize certain identifying marks on the king’s body – probably tattoos.
The monks of Waltham Abbey had a tradition of Edith bringing Harold’s body to them for burial, soon after the battle. Although other sources suggest Harold was buried close to the battlefield, and without ceremony, it is hard not to hope that Edith was able to perform this last service for the king. However, any trace of Harold’s remains was swept away by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, so the grave of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king is lost to history.

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Harold’s mother, Gytha, eventually fled into exile on the Continent, taking Harold and Edith’s daughter, another Gytha, with her, possibly arranging her marriage to the prince of Smolensk and – later – Kiev. Edith and Harold’s sons fled to Ireland, all but one, living into the 1080s, though the dates of their eventual deaths remain uncertain. Gunnhild remained in her nunnery at Wilton until sometime before 1093, when she became the wife or concubine of Alan the Red, a Norman magnate. Whether or not she was kidnapped seems to be in question but when Alan died in 1093, instead of returning to the convent, Gunnhild became the mistress of Alan’s brother and heir, Alan Niger. Alan Rufus held vast lands in East Anglia – lands that had once belonged to Eadgifu the Fair and, if Eadgifu was Edith the Swan-neck, it’s possible that Alan married Gunnhild to strengthen his claims to her mother’s lands.
After 1066 Edith’s lands had passed to Ralph de Gael before eventually falling into the hands of Alan the Red. Of Edith the Swan-neck, there is no trace after Harold is interred at Waltham Abbey, she simply disappears from the pages of history…

Footnotes:
[1] Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com, 2004

Sources: oxforddnb.com; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley.