Wecome to the concluding part of Ælfgyva: The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Imagine someone wants to tell you some gossip about your neighbour Joe Bloggs, something quite scandalous and outrageous. Imagine that person has already heard it from someone else and perhaps that person has heard it from some other person. Imagine that somewhere along the line, facts have become distorted or left out. Perhaps someone has mistaken Joe for a different Joe – or for a John, who looked a lot like a Joe? Imagine that by the time the rumour reaches you, the whole episode has been scrambled into something slightly different, but with a similar concept? Perhaps the story is entirely the same, but the it is the identities of those involved that are morphed. Well, this is what I believe has happened in the Bayeux Tapestry with the Aelfgyva tale.
After studying the tapestry, the possible candidates and the possible links to the story quite thoroughly, I can come up with no other explanation other than it is a case of mistaken identity where a certain lady’s story has been wrongly attributed to another. One can imagine it would not have been that difficult to mistake one person for another when there were so many women with the same name around at the same time. Especially if you were a Norman, hearing scandalous tales passed from one person to another like a Chinese whisper.
So what are the implications of such a suggestion? This is what I believe, could be… what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to convey. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven, but merely a suggestion and an interpretation of what this scene might signify. I am not in any way stating that I have cracked the mystery, or that I have finally found the answer. I am however presenting you with a possibility, having been unable to discover any other indisputable explanation for the woman’s role embroidered into the legend with the hints of scandal that have been attributed to a particular woman of that name.
So, here is the story, as I imagine it:
The woman in the scene with the cleric, is Ælfgifu of Northampton, and the priest touching her face is doing so to signify some sort of collaboration with her. In the scene before, Harold and William are discussing the earl’s reasons for coming to Normandy. The scene in which Ælfgyva and the priest are portrayed is part of their conversation also. Harold is explaining to William that he has come to negotiate the release of his brother and nephew, hence the man that Harold appears to be almost touching with his finger, is presented with a beard in the English style of facial fashion, and not the Norman clean-shaven manner, as all the others in the scene are – apart from Harold, of course. It seems quite reasonable to me that this bearded fellow is Wulfnoth, Harold’s brother who was one of the hostages he has come to negotiate the release of. But William, overwhelmed by the earl’s presence and its implication for him, understands some other reason for Harold’s visit. He is convinced that Harold has come to declare his fealty to him and assure him that when Edward dies, he will support him as his successor. Why else would he come with such gifts of wonder to offer him? Could William’s mindset have been so focused on the crown of England that he cannot not hear the words Harold is trying to say to him? Harold mentions, carefully – very carefully – because Edward, the king, has told him to be so, that King Edward has declared his great nephew, Edgar, grandson of the courageous Edmund Ironside, as the atheling, which means that the boy is someone who is throne-worthy, therefore a future candidate to the throne. Harold knows that William has never been named atheling, but he is very careful how he presents his case. William listens, shows interest in what the Englishman has to say, after all he is going to need him when Edward dies. Nonetheless, he is undaunted by what Harold is telling him. He has already dismissed Edgar, having heard the scandal of Edmund Ironsides’ mother Aelfgyva, who it was said, had tricked her husband into believing her sons were his when they were really the sons of a priest and a workman. He laughs at Harold’s suggestion that the Witan should prefer a boy over a man such as him, a boy descended from dubious lineage. Is he not (the duke) a man who has cheated death many times and earned the respect of his enemies? Harold tries to put him straight about Ælfgyva, desperately trying to make him understand that he is mistaken and that the woman in the scandal he was referring to was not Edmund Ironside’s mother, but Harold Harefoot’s mother, wife of Cnut. Yes, Aethelred’s wife was also called Ælfgifu, but there was no such scandal about her and Edgar’s lineage is indisputably of the true line of Wessex. Still William does not listen. He interrupts, rebuffs and insists – all in the best nature and good spirits, of course. Harold is having problems pressing home his point because William has made his mind up. It is a game that only William can win. Harold, William declares, will support him in his quest for the English throne, and consider allying himself closely to him by marrying a daughter of his. William suggests this proposition in such a way that if Harold should refuse, he may inflict great insult upon his most congenial host, who has saved him from the humiliation and torment of being held as the Count of Ponthieu’s prisoner… and in Harold’s mind, he is thinking that if he wants to leave there alive, he will have to play the game that William has already won. Perhaps it is then that Harold realises what a terrible mistake he has made. Why, oh why, did he not listen to his king when he warned him that “no good will come of it”?
So any attempt that Harold might make to put right the error that William has made in identifying the correct scandal with the incorrect Ælfgifu, is from then on thwarted. Wiliam will change the subject or offer a distraction. He does anything not to talk about the subject again. And by the time he gets home, with only one of the hostages being released, Harold is ridden with anxiety, having been made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he has basically handed the English crown on a plate, to the Norman duke. The first thing he does is seek out his relative, Ælfric, who was once a monk at Canterbury, and in earnest, divulge to him what he has done. It is then that Harold learns that according to canon law, a man who gives oath under severe duress, can later recant without detriment to his soul. With this knowledge, Harold can later go on to forgo the oath he made to William, to take the crown for himself. Which he does, indeed, later in 1066. Did the artist who designed the tapestry know the secret of the conversation that happened between Harold and William? Were they trying to convey the story that led to the mis identity of Ælfgifu and coerced oathtaking that meant the end of Anglo-Saxon rule? We shall never know, but this is the possibility that I have come to believe. How I wish I had a time machine, so that I could take you back with me to that year, 956 years ago when it all happened.
I believe that this is the basis for the artist’s insertion of the scene with Aelfgyva and the priest. Whether or not my theory is right, the creator wanted to convey to the viewer that this particular scandal had some link to the conversation that William and Harold are having. The small, crude images in the border further enforces the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton’s scandal leaving me with no doubt that they represent the labourer and priest who were supposed to have fathered the children said to be Cnut’s sons. I cannot, although I have tried to, locate any other evidence that would identify a believable rationale for this scandal to have been placed in the tapestry. If I were a contemporary of it, I may have been privy to the tittle-tattle and also that perhaps William had wrongly identified the woman and would not have had to use my imagination to work out the innuendo of the illustration. But this is my interpretation. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing I am right, however I do not think this has been a pointless study, for it has identified the woman and shed some light on some other mysteries of the tapestry also. I hope that you all have not been disappointed. I would love to know what you think.
Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066 The Hidden History of The Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial, London.
Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England
Eadmer Historia Novorium in Anglia
Harvey Wood H, (2008) The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England, Atlantic Books, Chatham.
McNulty J.B. (1980) The Lady Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry,Medieval Academy of America, vol 55 (4) pp 659-688.
In this final examination of this mystery, I do not aim to prove,what the image of Alfgyva and the priest represents. It would be impossible, because there is no evidence to draw on – at all – that is irrefutably connected to the scene. Mind you, if there was, I’m sure it would have been discovered years ago. So, my mission is to explain, and perhaps persuade, my theory of who she is and what the scene could be portraying. We will never know the full truth behind the image and what the artist was trying to convey, the real message has been lost down the tunnel of time and has died with those who have long since lived those events.
I imagine that in the same way one might glance at the front page of a modern newspaper, read the first line of a headline story and know exactly what the author was referring to, so the contemporaries of the Tapestry would also know about the well-known scandal of the time. The people of the 11thc may not have needed any more explanation than the image of Alfgyva and the priest for them to know who the artist was referring to – or – it might be that there was some secret underlying message linked to the woman and the priest contained within the borders of the tapestry that reports something else only known to certain people. No one can be sure. One could also say (and some have), that the images in the borders could be there for decorative purposes only, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the message the Tapestry is trying to send.
So to summarise, we discovered earlier on who the lady in question is and to my mind this is as indisputable as it can get. She was Ælfgifu of Northampton, handfastened wife of King Cnut, and it was J Bard McNulty (1980) who first identified her. She was sent by Cnut to Norway to govern there with their eldest son Swein, however her heavy handed rule did not endear her to the Norwegians and they eventually ousted her and her son. Poor Swein died in Denmark where they had both sought refuge. Nothing was heard about her after 1040, but she had become the subject of a scandal years before, when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were actually neither hers nor his. One was rumoured to be the son of a priest and a serving maid and the other was the son of a workman and perhaps herself or the same servant maid.
Regarding her connection to the Bayeux Tapestry, what could she possibly have had to do with the story of Harold’s sojourn in Normandy? As I explained previously in Part V, J.McNulty Bard (1980) states in The Lady Ælfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry that the scene depicting Ælfgyva and the priest is not what happens next in the story, but what Harold and William are discussing in the previous scene. This is highly possible, for it is the only scene that doesn’t follow the previous one. But with the absence of speech bubbles, it is still pretty much conjecture, though I can say with confidence that of all the theories, this one has substance to it.
In order to reach the point where we can deliberate the conversation between Harold and William, we need to discuss the scene with the two men in detail. This is the one before the Aelfgyva scene. William and Harold have just arrived at William’s court from having ridden from Ponthieu where Harold had been kept, probably for ransom, by the young Count after washing up on his shore with his personal guard. According to Eadmer, somehow, a huscarle of Harold’s, escaped and called upon William for his help in releasing his lord from the clutches of Count Guy. William was the count’s overlord and demanded that Guy hand Harold over immediately, which he did. Now, we move on, William sits on his throne in his hall with a Norman guard standing behind him with a spear. This man appears to be pointing at Harold. The viewer can differentiate between the Normans and the English by their hairstyles. There is little disparity with the English and Norman clothing of the day, but their hair styles are very different with most Normans wearing their hair short and shaved at the back to just above the ears. The artist has obviously marked these out to give a clear distinction between the two races. The image of Harold is shown with his hair covering his ears and just above collar length. Curiously, the guard standing directly behind him as he converses with William, is not shown as a Norman. This man is also sporting an English style hair cut and a beard. The Normans are generally shown as being clean shaven. The English either have beards or moustaches. As we can see, the rest of William’s household guards are looking very Norman-like in contrast to the one that Harold appears to be indicating to.
As stated by Eadmer in his History of Recent Events in England, Harold had travelled to Normandy with the intention of negotiating the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon. These two particular Godwinsons had been taken into Edward’s care as hostages to ensure the good behaviour of their patriarch, Godwin, in 1051, when had Godwin found himself in trouble with Edward. His refusal to punish the people of Dover for their ‘maltreatment’ of the king’s brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Bologne and his retinue, had been the cause of this discontent between the earl and his king (Barlow 2002). Godwin had rallied his supporters to side with him against the king. At that time, the great nobles of the day were reluctant to support a civil war and so Godwin had no choice but flee into exile, leaving his son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon behind as hostages. It is not exactly clear how Wulfnoth and Hakon, both young boys at the time, came to find themselves in Normandy, but it was quite possible that the Archbishop, Robert Champart took them with him when Godwin forced his way back to England from exile a year later. Champart had helped to engineer Godwin’s fall from grace and so feared for his life and fled back to Normandy. It is believed that he used the boys to shield him from those who would stop him leaving the country and brought the boys with him to present to William as surety for Edward’s promise of the crown. This might have been with Edward’s agreement, but must have been a decision that Edward later wished to forget, for he was eventually to sanction a mission by Bishop Ealdred to go abroad to look for Edward’s nephew, known as Edward the Exile, son of his brother, Edmund Ironside.
So, Eadmer, a monk and chronicler of Canterbury, has in his writings, Harold travelling to Normandy on a mission to secure the release of his kin with a stark warning from Edward that this may not be a good idea and that he will be inviting trouble for himself and ‘the whole kingdom’ if he does indeed embark on this journey. Edward warns Harold that the duke is ‘not so simple’ as to give the hostages up without getting something in return. Edward apparently also states, as Eadmer tells us, that he wanted no part in Harold’s plan. And yet Harold still went, frivolously, one might think, considering Edward’s warning about the nature of his second cousin. This story reveals that not only was Harold possessed of a stubborn nature, it also shows that the king’s power over his subordinate was weak, for he was unable exert his kingly influence over him and persuade him not to go. But whatever Harold’s determination to ignore his king’s advice, he must have been disturbed by the plight of his brother and nephew, languishing in Normandy long after the need for them to be hostages. The original purpose for their detention had been to ensure Godwin’s good behaviour and the patriarch of the family had long been dead. Harold, I am sure, wanted only to bring them home. The Norman sources tell a totally different tale. They insist that Harold had been sent by Edward to confirm the succession upon him (Harriet Harvey Wood 2008). I prefer Eadmer’s version, for it holds more weight. He was said to have had access to people who might have had first hand information about Harold’s intentions when he went to Normandy. It is a plausible suggestion and upon studying the images of the Tapestry, I have not seen anything that might not support this idea; having said that, the Tapestry does support both the Norman and Eadmer’s version.
So now, what are my conclusions? Well, you will have to wait until tomorrow to hear the rest of the story in the final concluding episode of this long, twisted journey back to the past.
Blogtober has been a lot of fun for us at @Histwriters and I’ve met a lot of amazing new characters along the way. It wasn’t hard for me to choose my favourite character for he is at the centre of the saga I am writing, the Sons of the Wolf series.
Most of us know Harold Godwinson as being the chap who usurped the English throne, which should rightfully have gone to William the Conqueror, right? And that he was killed by an arrow that pierced his eye and then hacked down as he was dying? Well, he probably deserved it for stealing another man’s crown, didn’t he? Not only was he a usurper, but he was also a womaniser, a breaker of oaths, betrayer of brothers, and an avaricious, greedy man, who amassed his wealth through deceit. We’re told that he and his troops spent the night before battle carousing and drinking so loudly they heard it in the Norman camp all the way in Hastings! No wonder they lost. So just why am I a Haroldite? What qualities make me ignore all the negative facts about him and put him forward for my favourite character in history?
I am about to tell you.
Many people still buy into the myth that Harold was felled by the arrow in the eye, however I am not one of them. Unfortunately, we have no written account from anyone who was actually present at the battle, and even if they were, how much of the battle would they have been able to see. If we could have had several eyewitness accounts, we might have been able to put them together. As it is, we don’t, and therefore we can only rely on what we have in terms of what was considered contemporary or near contemporary. Nonetheless we can objectively make a study of the primary sources and the Bayeux Tapestry, and then subjectively piece together what we think really happened as best we can. The Bayeux Tapestry is the main contemporary source that appears to portray the arrow in the eye story but written sources tell a different story and I believe that the death of Harold, which more-or-less ended the battle, was far more gruesome than a mere arrow in the eye. Lets taken an overview of Harold’s life.
Harold was born, circa 1022, to parents Gytha Thorkelsdóttir and Godwin son of Wulfnoth. His mother (aforementioned) was of noble Danish blood and Godwin, his father, was the son of a Sussex thegn whose lineage some say might have descended from the Royal House of Cerdic. He was the second eldest of a vast brood of 6 brothers and 2 sisters, one of whom became Queen of England when she married Edward the Confessor. There was also a grandson, Hakon, said to have been the son of Swegn. Hakon plays only a small part in the tale of the Godwinson’s downfall, along with the only son to survive the destruction of his family, Wulfnoth.
Harold’s early career is not known until, like his brother Swegn, he was invested with an earldom. Swegn drew the short straw because he ended up in charge of the troublesome Welsh border lands while Harold got East Anglia which covered a swathe of lands from Norfolk southwards to Essex. Harold went on to command a fleet of ships for King Edward, and was engaged in some conflicts with foreign pirates who were using European coastal regions to launch their raids. Harold would also have been the king’s representative in his earldom, doling out the king’s law and justice in the shire courts of his jurisdiction. He would collect revenue, oversee transfers of land, witness charters, and attend the king on a regular basis.
It seems that around this time, he met the rich heiress, Edith Swanneck – her name was actually Eadgifu the Fair, and Edith Swanneck was a misspelling in a later chronicle. She and Harold probably married in an equivalent to a civil ceremony, known as a more danico, or handfasting. She brought Harold much wealth, land, and power and he was also gifted land by those wanting to curry favour with their earl. Land and wealth equalled power in Medieval times and Harold was no different to any other ambitious man wanting to improve his standing in life.
What was life like amongst such a huge brood of boys like back then? One can imagine the household was probably very boisterous and fraught at times. Godwin, their father would have had to have been a strong disciplinarian when at home to keep some sort of order in the household. I suspect poor Gytha was at home managing the family and household on her own quite a lot with Godwin’s responsibilities as Earl of Wessex. They may have employed a strict childemaester, because we know that Godwin and Gytha educated their children; Harold was known to be a keen reader and he and Tostig were referred to as ‘intelligent’ in the Edwardi Vita.
There are anecdotes about the family, though perhaps not from a reliable source, and Tostig and Harold were once chastised as boys, for fighting at the dinner table in front of the king. Tostig was said to have grabbed Harold by the hair. Ouch! Later, Harold was to find it difficult to support Swegn when he was in trouble with the king for numerous offences, including carrying off and deflowering an Abbess, and the murder of his cousin, Beorn. Harold retrieved Beorn’s body from where it had been dumped at sea and had him properly buried. Harold was not able to forgive Swegn and called for Swegn’s exile. Godwin disagreed and begged the king for mercy for his eldest, even though Swegn denied he was his father, claiming to be Cnut’s son. Godwin obviously thought the sun shone out of Swegn’s backside and I wonder how Harold felt about that! Swegn eventually died during a pilgrimage in Constantinople.
These insights (if accurate) into the family dynamics make them an interesting bunch, their issues so like today’s. If Swegn, the black-sheep-of-the-family with narcissistic anti-social traits, was alive today, he’d probably have been on drugs, fathered several illegitimate kids, been in prison for domestic violence, and in numerous rehabs before overdosing to death on smack.
Tostig would probably have been the jealous, resentful, secretive one, who reckoned his problems had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Harold. He would have seen Harold as his enemy, and no amount of persuading him otherwise would have shifted him from that view in 1065 when Harold’s failure to support him against the Northerners, was seen as betrayal. He probably felt he’d long lived in Harold’s shadow, despite being his sister’s apparent favourite. Towards the end of his life, he must have despised his brother, and I can’t help but wonder what they had fought about, if true, that day at court when they were younger.
We know very little of Gyrth and Leofwin, though the Vita suggests they were considerably younger. There is evidence that Harold and Leofwin may have been close, as they were in Ireland together when the family were exiled in 1051/2. Godwin, Gytha, Tostig, and Gyrth fled to Flanders whilst Harold and Leofwin went to Ireland to drum up support from the Irish king. Later on, Gyrth apparently offered to lead the troops into battle at Hastings, so that Harold could wait in London for the rest of his army, which suggests that along with their differences there was also great loyalty.
Godwin must have been a huge influence on his sons, especially Harold, who stepped into Swegn’s shoes when he died in 1052, and then succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex. Godwin was a formidable administrator who had served six kings. He was loyal to Edmund Ironside, and after his death, joined Cnut’s service. Godwin had little choice but to accept the new king, as there was no real English contender. Cnut favoured Godwin over men like Streona who had switched sides and betrayed Edmund at the battle of Assandun, suggesting that Cnut valued loyalty
Godwin was not as loyal to the kings who followed Cnut and Edmund, his allegiance wavering between Cnut’s two sons, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot. During Harefoot’s reign, Godwin handed over Prince Alfred, Edward the Confessor’s brother, to Harefoot’s henchmen who had him blinded. Godwin swore an oath that he did not cause his death, but when Edward the Confessor burst onto the scene in 1042 as king, Godwin for the first time, found himself at odds with a reigning monarch and the death of Alfred seems to have been an important factor in Edward’s dislike for Godwin.
In 1051, Godwin rebelled against King Edward when the monarch, his father-in-law, demanded that he punish the men of Dover for their not so friendly behaviour towards Edward’s brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne and his French retinue on their way home after a visit to the king. Godwin was not about to harm his own people by burning their homes and was prepared to risk the wrath of the king for their sakes. Because of this, the whole family was sent into exile. In the summer of 1052, Godwin returned to England, reunited with his sons and took back his lands and titles. The following year, Godwin died and Harold became Earl of Wessex
Harold might have inherited Godwin’s characteristics: determined and single minded, ambitious and wily; patient, compassionate, forgiving, loyal, and honourable; but also ruthless when necessary. Orderic, the chronicler, wrote of Harold that he “was distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities. But what availed so many valuable gifts, when good faith, the foundation of all virtues, was wanting?” Where Orderic got his information is not known. Given that he had been born in 1075, it was not possible that he had ever met Harold, although he may have met somebody who had.
We can only glimpse historical personages, especially in preconquest England where much of what was known has been lost. The chronicles are often written as propaganda, or very subjectively. Sometimes, we can imagine what a man was like by what we know of his deeds. It seems to me that many of the negative accounts of Harold’s character come from Norman propaganda and outside of that, it is hard to judge. Harold appears to have been amiable, much liked, fair and just, although he could also be ruthless, as his actions in Wales have proven. Then again, Gruffudd, King of Wales, caused havoc in English border lands and gave harbour to recalcitrant English earls.
Harold had been involved in negotiating with the Welsh king and was very patient, even after Gruffudd broke the treaties time and time again. Eventually Harold lost his patience and made a spectacular lightning strike with mounted troops into Wales, bringing death and destruction to the countryside. It took a second, large scale two-pronged invasion along with Harold’s brother Tostig to finally defeat the Welsh, who handed over their king, minus his body.
A few years later, Harold, by then in his forties, was to repeat the impressive feat of covering territory at speed when he marched his huscarls 200 miles northwards, gathering an army on the way, to surprise Tostig and Harald Hardrada and to defeat them at Stamford Bridge. It required strength and stamina to carry out such fatigues and to then march back to fight a battle at Hastings within three weeks was remarkable, not only for Harold but for his huscarls who must have been powerful, strong, fit men. One can’t help but think of Orderic’s description of Harold’s strength of body and his singlemindedness.
Harold seems to have been Edward’s chief negotiator and a loyal servant of the crown. He was referred to as Dux Anglorum which meant that he was Edward’s number one man and the second most powerful man in England, bar the king. In fact, he appears to have had more power than even the king, and was able to influence Edward’s decisions. For example, he refused to back Tostig when the northern thegns, fed up with Tostig’s harsh rule in the north, wanted him out in favour of Morcar, brother of the Mercian earl, Edwin. Such a move was unprecedented around this time and Edward was not having it. He ordered his general to force them to cease their demands using military might. But Harold overruled the king, and Tostig, his own brother, had to go.
Was Harold jealous of his brother because he was the king’s favourite, or was he simply able to put aside brotherly love in order to avert a civil war? I cannot discount the first; Harold was human and may have been concerned for his own position, but with Hardrada and William of Normandy both watching the crown, one would not want to incite a rebellion that would divide the kingdom and make her vulnerable. Ultimately, Harold’s actions, whether those of an angry, jealous brother or not, showed that he would put the interests of the country and the people above that of family and even the king.
And what of Harold’s faithlessness which Orderic refers to? Historians are divided over the two versions of Harold’s trip to Normandy, the Norman and the English. In both versions, Harold is said to have made an oath to William that he would become his loyal vassal in England, and that upon Edward’s death, Harold would support William’s claim to the crown and ease the way for William succeeding to the throne of England. Orderic is not specific when he accuses Harold of faithlessness, but it is reasonable to assume that he was referring to this oath. Orderic, of course, was half-Norman and supported William’s claim.
Eamer, a writer of English history, states that Harold did not go to Normandy to bend the knee to William but to secure the release of the English hostages, his brother and nephew, who had been taken there by the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. This seems much more likely than the story he had gone to offer his support to William. Why would he agree to become his vassal in England? Harold was the equivalent to a duke, a Dux Anglorum, second to the king. His status was as high as William’s. Furthermore, Harold could not be William’s vassal whilst Edward still lived.
Eadmer claims that the oath Harold made to William was made under duress, and could honourably be broken. I don’t think Harold betrayed William at all. I think William used his local power to hold Harold hostage in a strange land and to coerce Harold into making that oath. This meant Harold did nothing wrong in using Church law to break an oath that was made under fear for his life and those of his companions and relatives. William had a reputation of making people disappear. Harold was not in any position to refuse him.
Looking at the available evidence, Harold may have been one of the best kings of the era, and possibly one of England’s most promising kings, had he been given that chance. He was ambitious, like many men of his time. He was confident, wily, and not afraid to put himself forward. When Edward lay dying, he would have discussed his manifesto with the other nobles who would have weighed up all their concerns especially the threat to England from other shores. They knew that to safeguard the English people’s interests and way of life, a strong, experienced leader would be needed. Edgar, the atheling, had been Edward’s intended heir, but Edward would have known that the kingdom needed someone like Harold, not an inexperienced boy in his early teens. I believe that is why in the end, he named Harold as his successor and why the witan agreed to elect him as king.
When Harold’s star began to rise in the 1040s, it was plain to see that he was a capable, loyal, general. He did what he could to avoid conflict within the realm on Edward’s behalf as if he had the foresight to conserve what energy England had for the really big event that was to come.
Harold was not just a warrior, diplomat and a king’s administrator, he was a husband and father. He remained loyal to Edith, his first handfasted wife until he wed the sister of the northern earls to bind them to him. It was customary in the 11th century for men in power to wed unofficially, so that they could make political alliances when they needed them. If the story that Edith was on the battlefield looking for his body after Hastings is true, then they must have still remained close enough for her to be there. His other heavily pregnant wife, Ealdgyth, who had been King Gruffudd’s first wife, had been taken to Chester for her safety by her brothers.
Harold could have been a great king if he had lived. It was said, when he became king, that he made laws that would curb the unlawful doings of men and had been making changes in the kingdom for good. When Harold was told that William had landed on the Sussex coast and was ravaging his lands, he wanted to engage the invaders as soon as possible for it was his people’s lands that were being ravaged as well as his own. William would have known the psychological effect this would have had on Harold. William and Harold had been friends and William probably knew his weaknesses. Harold had saved men from drowning when on campaign with William in Normandy, William knew he would not stand by and watch people die.
Some people believe that in taking the throne from Edgar, Harold showed his greed and ambition, and yes. he was ambitious and to be able to make a bid for the throne, a man had to have power. Wealth was power, as I have already said. But why should Harold not be king? Why should he have just settled for regent and perhaps fought the battle for Edgar on his behalf? Over the years, he’d certainly earned it. It should have been his time and when he died at Hastings, set upon by the Normans determined to see him dead, that chance was stolen from him. He died fighting for his land, his people and to keep England free of Norman enslavement. For me that is the epitome of kingship, and that is why he is on my favourite historical character list.
To see the rest of the blog posts that came before Harold’s, just check out these sites! You can also find links to these other participants on our Historical Writers Forum Blog Hoppers Page
The above article relates to research done for my Sons of the Wolf series
Today on the Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop, I’m taking you to Scotland in the 11th century to the world of Macbeth – but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the REAL Macbeth as far as we know him. As far back as 1054, even pre Conquest England was not averse to interfering in the business of its Scottish neighbours in the north. The Battle of the Seven Sleepers was one of these events which was to completely change the politics of the time in both countries and tragically led to the sad demise of the man called Macbeth, long vilified as a villain of Shakespeare. Here I discuss how the battle came about and what affect it had consequently.
Scotland in the earlier half of the eleventh century was a hothouse of different factions vying for supremacy. The chief king, Malcolm II of the House of Alpin was without male sons in 1034 when he died. He had three grandsons, all of whom may have been in the running for kingship: Duncan, Thorfinn, and Macbeth. All were sons of Malcolm’s three daughters. Malcolm named Duncan as his heir, and this might have led to resentment amongst the remaining grandsons and their supporters. One can imagine the three boys growing up at their grandfather’s court like brothers, in happy camaraderie and may have been close until 1034. Thorfinn, who was known as the Mighty, was ruler in the Orkneys from an early age after the death of his father Sigurd. Later, the lordship of Caithness was endowed upon him by his Scottish grandfather who obviously wanted him to have some influence in the mainland. MacBeth had to fight for his own success it seems, for his father, Findlaech, had been cruelly, but not unusually for this time, murdered by a cousin, Gillacomgain and took the Mormaership in Moray that had once belonged to Macbeth’s father. Macbeth wasn’t having this, and he in turn murdered the killer of his father in revenge, married, either with or without her consent, Gruoch, wife of the now deceased Gillacomgain. Gruoch was also of royal descent and also had a claim to the throne through her mother so if Macbeth had his eye on the kingship, his marriage to her would strengthen both their claims.
So, the cousins, who might have once been close like brothers, were now divided. Duncan alienated himself from them by unsuccessfully attacking Thorfinn – according to the Orkneyinga Saga, where he is identified as Karl Hundason. This was either before or after he went south with an army to attack Durham in retaliation for a Northumbrian ravaging of Cumbria. Durham was too far south from his own bases to be of any strategic use to Scotland so it was rather a reckless decision and not only that, the attack caused him to lose many of his cavalry. Adding this to his list of unsuccesses, Duncan rode north, hearing about a rising rebellion amongst the people of Moray who were unhappy with Duncan’s rule. Duncan seemed determined to redeem his military reputation at any cost. Evidently Thorfinn was to join forces with MacBeth in this, surprising Duncan, and a battle was fought where Duncan’s death ensued, , allowing Macbeth to seize power. Thorfinn must have been content or too busy with his position in Caithness and the Orkneys to challenge MacBeth’s claim.
Malcolm Canmore was Duncan’s eldest son, perhaps only a boy of eight or nine at the time of his father’s death, and he was spirited away with other members of Duncan’s family to safety, spending the years of MacBeth’s rule until 1054, growing up in England, perhaps at his kinsman’s Siward’s base in Northumbria, and at the court of Edward the Confessor. It is said that he was related to Earl Siward in some way, though how it is not clear. Malcolm’s father, Duncan, had links in Northumbria, having married a cousin or sister of Siward. It is not clear what exactly the link was, but whatever it was, Siward was willing to lead an army of Anglo-Danes into Scotland to supplant the man who usurped his kinsman’s crown. This might also have had something to do with Edward and Siward plotting to put in place a puppet king over Scotland to mitigate Scottish incursions over the border. And of course there was still the question of Cumbria and the dispute over territory.
The battle of the Seven Sleepers, later known as the Battle of Dunsinane, took place on the 27th July 1054 – the day of the festival it was named for. No doubt, sponsored by his kinsman, Siward, Malcolm petitioned King Edward for support in his quest to take an army into Scotland to oust the usurper, Macbeth, and to reclaim his father’s crown. Edward was agreeable to send men from his own household guard, suggesting that such an investment in the war meant there was something in it for the English other than a willingness to support a hard-done-by young man. Edward never ventured further than Oxford in his lifetime as king and may not have worried too much about the north unless it was to affect his rule in the south; it was Siward who would benefit the most from Edward’s help. However, as king, it was Edward’s duty to support his vassals, and without Siward safe in the north, he could have turned on his English overlord making things very difficult for the south.
“This year went Siward the earl with a great army into Scotland, both with a ship-force and with a landforce, and fought against the Scots, and put to flight the king Macbeth, and slew all who were the chief men in the land, and led thence much booty, such as no man before had obtained. But his son Osbeorn, and his sister’s son Siward, and some of his housecarls, and also of the king’s, were there slain, on the day of the Seven Sleepers”
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle D
According to Symeon of Durham, Siward’s Anglo-Danish forces were made up of horse, and a powerful fleet which might have been used to transport supplies for the invading army. It’s likely that the land force took the old ancient tracks used by the Romans, along the east coast of England, through Lothian and fording the River Forth near Stirling and into the heart of Scotland. Malcolm was said to have led the ships which landed at Dundee, and captured the fortress there and gathering Scottish rebels to his cause before sailing around Fife and into the River Tay and up to Birnam, where it is said he met with more Scots willing to join his cause, as Andrew Wyntoun, writing much later in the 15thc suggests with some plausibility.
The Northumbrian Chronicles account, is more colourful than the Worcester Chronicle and describes a huge invading force by the standards of the day. It is not known where Siward and Malcolm met up, it could have been at Dundee or perhaps Birnam or Stirling even. As they marched through the plains of Gowrie on their way past Scone, they would have most likely used the tactics often used in medieval warfare, probably raping and pillaging to draw Macbeth out of his lair to face them. Macbeth would have needed a much larger army than he would have kept in his household and it could be that in order to muster such forces he would need to ride the country to do so.
The campaign of Siward and Malcolm culminated in one of the most massive battles in 11thc Scotland. Malcolm and Siward’s forces were said to have approached from Birnam wood at night, under the cover of tree branches that they carried to disguise them, which was later immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth.
“Macbeth shall never vanquished be, Until great Birnam Wood, to High Dunsinane Hill, Shall Come against Him.”
MacBeth, Act 3, Scene 1 William Shakespeare
Whether or not Malcolm and Siward’s tactics of attrition had the desired affect of drawing Macbeth out of his fortress, identified as Dunsinane, is not known, however Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the combined Northumbrian and Scottish army and were put to flight by the invaders. It was a hard fought battle and the annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead, but Macbeth escaped, so it was a semi-victory for Siward and Malcolm for Macbeth went on after this, his power greatly reduced by the battle, but remained ‘king in the north’ to coin the phrase from Game of Thrones, but not used contemporarily.
The surviving English forces returned overloaded with booty, probably acquisitions gained from their pillaging and perhaps the capture of Dundee. Siward deposited Malcolm, inaugurated as King of the Scots in firm control of the Lowlands with his Scottish supporters. Having been away from Scotland for so long, this young man must have seemed more English than Scottish to his new subjects and it was to take him three more years before he was to finally consolidate his power fully, after hunting down Macbeth, who cannot be said to have skulked in his hideaway but worked hard to maintain his power further north and spent the next three years of his life, in his early fifties, an old man in Dark Age terms, carrying out ambitious raids deep into the lowlands.
In 1057 Malcolm Canmore, successfully lead a force across the Grampian mountains and lay an ambush for the unsuspecting Macbeth, at the village of Lumphanon, deep in Moray, as he returned from a southern foray. Macbeth was slain in the battle. Rebels after that placed Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, in power following Macbeth’s death, but he too was executed also, ensuring no rivals were left, or brave enough, to oppose Malcolm’s rule.
Eerily, Macbeth’s death came on the exact same date of August the 16th as that of Malcolm’s father, Duncan.
Why was this little known 11th century battle a game changer for both English and Scottish history?
In 1066, after the conquest of England by the Norman duke, William, Anglo-Saxon nobility was mostly decimated on the field of Hastings and the continued conflicts that followed. Wives and orphans of those slaughtered were displaced and in came the new ruling class. The royal family was now Norman, and the last remaining prince of the English royal house of Wessex, Edgar, briefly crowned by the survivors of the witan, was prevented from keeping his crown when he was taken hostage by William who then usurped him.
Edgar eventually managed to escape William and he and his sister, Margaret fled to Scotland and were harboured by Macbeth’s replacement, Malcolm Canmore, who by this time had been king for around ten years or so. Malcolm was taken by the very devout Margaret and eventually they were married and their daughter, Edith, went on to marry William the Conqueror’s successor and son, Henry I, and became Queen Matilda.
This meant that the English line of Wessex had returned to the English royal family and also flowed in the blood of Malcolm Canmore’s children thus uniting the two kingdoms through blood and bringing Anglo-Saxon culture to Scotland with both Malcolm and Margaret. The old Gaelic bloodline of the House of Alpin was now replaced by the House of Dunkeld whose outlook was very much influenced by the Anglo-Saxons. Equally it meant that there was also Scottish influence now in the English royal bloodline.
Tragically, MacBeth’s defeat at Dunsinane, led to his eventual removal from the Scottish throne, ending the Gaelic/Pictish influence and his successor, Malcolm’s, look to England to found his new Anglo-Scottish dynasty, (of course with a smattering of Germano/Hungarian).
Abingdon version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Aitcheson, N 1999 Macbeth, Man and Myth Sutton Publishing LTD, Phoenix Hill, Gloucestershire
Symeon of Durham – Historia Regum.
The Northumbrian Chronicles.
To keep up with the rest of the Blog Hop see whose next here.
Today I am hosting the Historical Fiction Writers Summer Blog Hop inwhich we choose a momentous event or epoch in time. October 18th 1016 was a date that stands out because it was the first time and only time we would have a Danish king on the English throne.
England in the early 11th century was one of turmoil. At the turn of 1000 AD, Æthelred the II was on the throne and had been there since 978, coming to power under undesirable circumstances at the age of 12, following the death of his brother Edward who was assassinated. At this time, England had been experiencing a period of peace and prosperity having restored the north under the rule of what was now England. But in the 980’s, the Danes began raiding again.
In 985, Æthelred first married Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, Ealdorman of York. He ruled over the southern half of the old kingdom of Northumbria. He and Æthelred had several issue of which Edmund was his third son. Its likely Edmund was born somewhere between 988 and 992. Like his brothers, he would have grown up to be educated and trained to be a warrior leader. His older brother, Ecgberht, died in 1005 which made him Æthelred’s second surviving eldest son. The oldest son, Æthelstan, died in 1014, which left a teenage Edmund as the principle heir to the throne.
Somewhere between approximately 995 and 1001, Ælfgifu, who does not appear to have had an official crowning, may have died, or been put aside, paving the way for Æthelred to enter into an alliance with Normandy by marrying Emma of Normandy in 1002. Throughout much of his reign Æthelred was beset by problems with the Danes and having to pay geld to them to make them leave. Despite the hefty payoffs, the Danes continued their incursions into the English kingdom.
By 1013, Sweyn of Denmark was confident enough to make a bid for the English throne and he invaded with a huge army. The English militia were forced to capitulate and Æthelred and his new wife, Emma of Normandy and their young children, sought sanctuary at the court of his wife’s brother, Duke Richard of Normandy.
Records suggest that Edmund and his older brother Æthelstan were close and this is confirmed by Æthelstan’s will (he died in 1014) in which he leaves various items as well as land to his younger brother. (It is interesting to note that a certain Godwin is also mentioned in the will intimating that there was also a relationship of friendship there too, with the man who was to become famous as the Earl of Wessex, father to Harold Godwinson and a brood of robust sons.) The brothers must have felt threatened by their father’s marriage to Emma, especially if, as declared in the Life of Edward the Confessor, England had promised that they would accept any male off-spring of theirs as the heir to the throne before any others. Whether or not this is true, this was never put to the test as Edmund was to become king before the male heirs of Emma were old enough to contest.
Whilst his father was in exile, Edmund and Æthlestan did their best to garner support and managed to gain a friendship with brothers Morcar and Sigferth, two influential thegns in the East Midlands. When Sweyn died, Æthelred was invited back and he returned, promising that he would be a better king to his people as they asked.
On Æthelred’s return, he set about showing he would be true to his word to be a better king and recaptured London from Olaf, one of Cnut’s supporters. Edmund joined his father in the retaking of London, initially showing support for him. Æthelred then launched an expedition to attack the Danes, now led by Sweyn’s son, Cnut, but instead of winning the support of those people whose lands he savaged, Aethelred lost them to Edmund, almost undoing a lot of the good that Edmund and Aethelstan had done. But in any case, Cnut and his supporters were driven out. But he was not gone forever and returned in 1015 and began pillaging England once more.
During this addendum to Æthelred’s reign, Edmund and Æthelred’s relations became further strained when he fell out with his father, who, with encouragement of Eadric Streona, known as the ‘Grasper’ the ealdorman of Mercia, executed Edmund’s friends, Morcar and Sigferth, two influential thegns from the Seven Boroughs in the East Midlands who had previously given their allegiance to the Danes. Here I feel I should mention the hypocrisy of Streona, who had supported Cnut recently himself and only just returned to the fold.
Naturally, Edmund was incensed at these deaths. He had after all, managed to win their support back for his father. Setting himself up as Ealdorman of the East Midlands, he revolted against his father and defied him by rescuing the widow of Sigferth, Ealdgyth. Æthelred had locked her up, hoping to get his hands on her land and property. Edmund married her totally against his father’s will, which did not please him. This rift in the family now completely divided father and son and the marriage strengthened Edmund’s position, for Ealdgyth’s family was one of the strongest in the Midlands.
When Æthelred became sick, it was left to Edmund to fight the Danes and win back England for the English Royal House. Streona went over to Cnut once more, and Edmund went north to meet with Uhtred of Northumbria hoping he would join him in an alliance but Uhtred was intercepted by Cnut and Uhtred gave Cnut his allegiance. Edmund went to join his father in London, failing to gather the support he needed and Cnut had Uhtred killed. Æthelred died in April 1016 and the Witan declared Cnut king but London declared for Edmund and he was crowned in St Paul’s Cathedral. This was when the real fighting started.
Eadric Streona, Edmund’s brother-in-law, gathered a substantial army that he led himself. The ASC stated that he had ‘intended to betray Edmund.’ Streona should have been loyal to Edmund, after all he was married to Edmund’s sister Eadgyth. But Eadric was not a man to keep faith and switched allegiances throughout his career. Eadric ended up in Cnut’s camp once more which meant that Cnut’s already substantial army was now augmented with English militia.
After a hasty coronation, Edmund left London which was being besieged by the Danes in the care of the citizens and went West where the fyrd rallied to him. Battles and skirmishes were fought, two of which were in Penselton in Somerset and Sherston in Wiltshire, the outcomes of which were neither victorious or lost, but ended with the Danes retreating. With this army he returned to London raising the siege that had been resisted by the people of London and then defeated the Danes at Brentwood. This exercise was repeated, with Edmund riding off into Wessex to gather more men, returning to London once more to find it again besieged and raising it once more. Then defeated the retreating army at Otford this time. Edmund pursued Cnut and the Danes into Kent; he had them on the run. It was then that Eadric decided to hedge his bets one more time and met with Edmund at Aylesford, fifteen miles from where Cnut’s army had taken refuge at the Isle of Sheppey. Streona had been Æthelred’s good friend and adviser but he could not even commit himself unconditionally to his beloved king’s son, which showed how much of a cunning swine he was.
Cnut eventually left Sheppey and Edmund went to attack him in Assundun in Essex, on the 18th of October, 1016. The battle was long, drawn out and ferocious on both sides. It is not sure how the battle was conducted, but we can assume that both sides fought on foot in their respective shieldwalls, though there is nothing to say that at least one side might have ridden into battle and cut the other side down in surprise. No one thought to record the battle details back in the day, and all we have from the English ASC was that the cunning swine, “Eadric fled the field, betraying his natural lord and all the people of England.” Thanks, Mr Streona.
The ASC refers to Edmund as acquiring the nomenclature of Ironside through his valour on the battlefield. It is tempting to imagine a powerfully built man, dressed in all the trappings of a warrior-king of the 11th century, swinging his Sword of Offa, riding into battle like a god on a horse. Sadly due to Eadric’s actions, Edmund could not fight on. Having lost much of his army in battle, he left with his life intact and the remnants of his force, wondering what might have happened if Streona had not so wickedly double-crossed him. Although Cnut’s army held the field, there was no total victory for Edmund still held Wessex.
Edmund’s story is tragic. Eadric’s deceit was inevitable, for he had already showed he was in it for himself, and later he was to pay for this ultimate betrayal later in the early days of his leadership Cnut, loathing oathbreakers, turned on him and executed him, having him beheaded. And Streona, who may well have been jealous of Edmund, was to go down in history as a grasping ‘little shit’ (as Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast refers to him) *
Edmund, despite the possibility of him being wounded in battle, did not give up. He was not called Ironside for nothing. Unlike his father, who only ever led his men into battle three times, Edmund then rode into the West again to raise another army. Cnut could not understand why Edmund was so determined to fight on and not submit. Surely there was only so many times a man could come back again! Edmund had been relentless in his energy in fighting back, had Cnut on the run for some time. Cnut was battle-weary and wanted to put an end to the fighting and get on with the business of being king (Susan Abernethy).
Edmund and Cnut were eventually to meet up in Athelney where many years ago Edmund’s great ancestor had planned his own latter day D-Day invasion against the Danes. Needless to say, Streona was there to play his part and mediate! That must have stuck in Edmund’s gullet. If I had been Edmund I would have wanted his guts on a platter! (Only in the context of the time of course!)
A peace pact was made and England was once again divided. Cnut would have the Danelaw, Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. Wessex was Edmund’s. It is said that whomever should die first would inherit the other’s kingdom so the two men became ‘brothers’ symbolically.
At this point, both men were in their prime but young by today’s standards at around 26 or 27 years old, having achieved much in their short lifetime. Edmund had a brother, Eadwig, who did not seem to have been a man of note as he does not emerge in any of this as such. Edmund’s wife Ealdgyth had given him a son in 2015 and another child was on its way. He had lost many of his thegns and ealdormen in battle though perhaps he had one loyal subject that we know of, Godwin Wulfnothson, who we know had been in his circle of friends from Æthelstan’s will. I like to think that Godwin had stayed by his side and was still supporting him. As a historical fiction author, we are allowed to make assumptions. However, it was thought that Godwin’s prior loyalty to Edmund was what Cnut admired in him.
Cnut had the bigger territory and was known to be a cunning, though honourable man, who did not like oathbreakers. It is thought that he admired, maybe even loved his adversary, Edmund. It’s sad to think the two men might have been great rulers together. By this time, Cnut’s own three sons by Ælfgifu may have been born. He had Streona and many other influential strong men in his counsel. And the pact that whoever died first would inherit the other’s kingdom was open to abuse. If Cnut, or anyone in his employ wanted to have Edmund murdered, they could make it happen for the right price. And with Streona in Cnut’s camp it’s quite credible.
Sadly, Edmund did die about 5 weeks after Assundun and not long after the meeting between the two men. We don’t know for sure why Edmund died. There are thoughts that Streona had a hand in it and as we can imagine from his treacherous behaviours this is plausible that someone in his pay could have crept in to Edmund’s camp, bribed a guard or two to do the deed. Even Cnut, though seems to have been honourable throughout his reign, was not above murder if the story about Edmund’s sons being sent away to have an accident was to be believed. Most historians however seem to have accepted that Edmund died of festering wounds after Assundun. Even a minor wound could become easily infected and cause fatal blood poisoning in those days. It could have happened suddenly if the infection was systemic. There are of course stories that Edmund was murdered and in not very savoury circumstances, which might or might not be doubtful.
Whatever the cause of Edmund’s untimely death, Streona did, in my view, have a role to play in it. His betrayal seems to have played a huge part in Edmund’s difficulties in beating back Cnut. Edmund’s tireless efforts to wrest England back from the Danes is to be admired and is largely forgotten because heroes like Edmund don’t get lauded in history because ultimately he lost his last battle too early.
Cnut seems to have gone on to be a ‘great’ king, bringing peace to this land for almost twenty years. Unfortunately his sons failed him and the crown was eventually to come back to the House of Wessex through Edmund’s younger brother, Edward, known as the Confessor.
I wonder if Edmund would have been proud of his son Edward the Exile who became a soldier in Europe and perhaps even prouder of his grandson Edgar, who seems to have inherited something of his grandfather’s determination?
Although we don’t know much about Edmund as a person, he was afforded the name Ironside in his time, I believe, and this gives us a glimmer of his character, that he was brave, committed and true to himself and what he believed in. In this current climate where we are looking back at our past and scrutinising every symbol that was ever put up to commemorate our so called heroes, I for one would be willing to put up a statue to this brave, fearless man who did his best to keep the wolves from the door and never gave up till his last days.