Historical Writers Blog Hop: Swegn Godwinson, an 11th Century Scandal

The story of the Godwinson brothers is a well-known one but there is one brother that is often overlooked as he doesn’t figure in the story of 1066 as Harold and Tostig do. Swegn. I have to confess that despite his shortcomings, I have a soft spot for this, the most colourful son of the House of Godwin, as I’m sure that had he been paid more attention to, or perhaps given the thing that was missing in his upbringing, whatever that was that made him the way he was, his life might have been as successful, if not more so than that of his brothers.

It was not surprising that in a family so prolific for producing male species, that there would be at least one who, if he was alive today, would have been up for an ASBOs, would have had several illegitimate children by the time he was nineteen, been involved with drugs and alcohol problems, and likely to have served time in prison. And the very fact that Swegn, the eldest, of the brood, was convinced he was not a Godwinson from an early age, would suggest that this lad would definitely have been diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder at some point in his life.

Godwin, the father of this large gaggle of children, was in the service of the athelings, Aethelstan and Edmund Ironside, and went on to serve Cnut after Edmund’s untimely death. Godwin’s career went from landholding thegn to much greater things once he’d got his foot in Cnut’s royal door and his relatively low, but noble status, grew into an Earldom, with Cnut awarding him the lands of Wessex and Cnut’s brother-in-law’s sister, Gytha thrown into the package.

With his newfound status, a no-doubt puffed up Godwin must have strutted around with a spring in his step after his wife, Gytha, whose noble pedigree could not be denied, (she was the daughter of the chieftain Thorkil Sprakalegg and granddaughter of Harold Bluetooth) gave birth to their first son, Swegn. Little did the young couple realise that this charming little bundle of joy would turn out to be the bane of their lives.

I don’t know under which ill omen this black sheep, latter-day wild boy was born, but scandal would thence follow him throughout his life. How his parents, who obviously loved him, coped with the embarrassment of a son who continuously behaved badly one cannot imagine. But just as today, childhood experiences formulate a person’s character and I wonder what encounters in his early life Swegn might have had that shaped his personality the way it did.

Following him, were several other offspring, Edith, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwin, Gunnhild, and Wulfnoth. There have been claims of another female and male, but I think that they have been made in error. Another male who joined the family for awhile was Beorn Estridson, who was the nephew of Cnut and son of Gytha’s brother, Ulf, who was married to Cnut’s sister Estrid. He may have been fostered into the family judging by the closeness between Harold and Beorn.

As one might expect there must have been a lot of chaos in the House of Godwin and there is a little story where 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. I wonder if Swegn is represented in this picture as the boy trying to break them up – perhaps after stirring up trouble!

Tostig and Harold brawling before the king.

Why it was Swegn that was to become the bad boy of the family is not recorded, and was possibly unusual for the first-born child. We know from events in the autumn of 1065 that Tostig, the fourth born child if we are to accept that their sister Edith was one of the top three, grew up resentful of his older brother Harold. But what were the aspects of Swegn’s upbringing that could have affected the eldest and heir of the Godwin household so badly that it created such a monster?

Maybe, to get a better picture of the man’s chatacter, we don’t need to look much further than where Swegn saw himself within the Godwin household. Possibly one of the most hurtful shameful things that Swegn could have done to Mama and Papa Godwin was to publicly accuse his mother of lying about his paternity. Sometime probably before 1047, he took it into his head to declare himself the son of Cnut which would have meant a few scandalous things. 1) That Gytha had been having an affair with Cnut whilst he had his other two wives, Emma and Ælfgifu on the go. 2) That she was married to Godwin at the time when Cnut fathered Swegn, and Godwin was not aware of this. 3) That she was given to Godwin by Cnut after the Danish king thought two women already were enough to handle. And 4) That Swegn hated his parents so much that he would do anything to embarrass them in public because he felt different from the others in his family.

Did his parents expect too much of him as the older son and then chastise him for his failings? Often we see this has been the case with many children growing up who had a sense of being outside the nucleus of their biological family. Could this have been the issue with Swegn? Or was it simply that he was the result of a well-kept secret that somehow wreaked havoc once it came to light by whatever means.

Of course Swegn may have convinced himself that his own suspicions that he was not a Godwinson were true, but his mother was not having it. She adamantly denied this on oath at an assembly of Wessex noble women she convened as Hemming’s Cartulary testifies.

One wonders about the breach that this must have caused within the family. Its interesting though that Godwin himself did not come out publicly to challenge this himself, though in no way should this be seen as the great earl acknowledging any truth in the claim. The old man might have felt he had enough to deal with without getting embroiled in an errant son’s lies against his own family. Behind the scenes though, it might have been quite different. Mercedes Rochelle in her novel The Sons of Godwin gives an excellent portrayal of the family dynamics in the household and treats Swegn’s character most sympathetically that one can really empathise with him and understand what shaped his sense of self and his outsider syndrome.

Whatever Swegn had hoped to gain, it obviously did not help his familial relations. I rather like to think that his mother gave him a right old slap around the face the next time she saw him. Nor did he evoke any loyalty with sister Edith, the queen, who failed to name him in her biography (the Vita Edwardi ) of the family, though she does allude to the rot within the family and this could plainly be him. Having said that, nor does she name her mother. I wonder why.

 In 1047 Swegn had hardly settled down in his office as Earl of lands in Mercia and Wessex, when he decided to forge an alliance with another like-minded soul, Gruffudd of Llewellyn of Gwynedd and Powis. Perhaps jealousy of his brother Harold and their cousin Beorn’s closeness or better treatment, was the reason, who knows. But he had made up his mind that he was going his own way. This Welsh man was a rival of Earl Leofric of Mercia whose family’s enmity with Gruffudd may have stemmed further back than the slaughter of Leofric’s brother Eadwin. This could point to some conflict between Swegn and Leofric’s family which prompted Swegn to join with Gruffudd to help him win a campaign in the south of Wales. Nonetheless it was indeed a goading that would not have been taken well by the House of Mercia.

But that was nothing. The most scandalous of Swegns doings were about to come and this next anecdote would be the one that would kickstart the beginning of Swegn’s demise.

On the way back from his trip, Swegn decided to stop by the Abbey of Leominster. He seems to have already known the Abbess and had taken a fancy to her. He ordered Lady Eadgifu be brought to him and he rode off with her, knowing full well that this was not going to go down well with not only the church but society in general. To kidnap a noble woman, and an abbess at that was not something that could just be brushed under the rush-mats. Although it is not clear in what capacity Swegn knew her, it is unlikely it was a random stop where he thought he’d take a look at the nuns and see which one took his fancy. Most agree he already knew her, that there may have been something between them once. Perhaps that was why Eadgifu was put in a nunnery well away from the rogue son of Godwin! One can imagine the look of horror on the faces of the girl’s kin when they knew their little darling and Swegn were hooking up.

Whatever the case, he went on to keep her for a year until the threat of excommunication issued by the archbishop of Canterbury forced him to give her up, although some sources indicate that he’d already had enough of her by that time anyway after she had given birth to his son, Hakon. Of course he was outlawed for such a deed and he went off to Bruges then Denmark to catch up with his Danish relatives whom he might have felt more at home with, seeing as he believed himself to be the son of Cnut.

But it seems that Swegn couldn’t behave himself in Denmark either and despite helping out his cousin, namesake King Swein, in his campaigns to keep Denmark from invasion by Norway, he seems to have caused some ‘crimes against the Danes’. One can imagine what he might have done there, but it’s a shame the records aren’t more specific.

So, by 1048 Swegn had forged quite a reputation for himself. The wanna be Dane is kicked out of Denmark, but with a crew of seven to eight ships, he sails into his home port of Bosham. You can imagine the hue and cry!
“Quick! Swegn is here! Lock up the women!”
“And the nuns!”
Godwin must have held his head in his hands and Gytha, resigned to the fact that there was going to be trouble, must have done what most mothers did in these times and put the equivalent of the eleventh century kettle on.

Swegn, knowing he’d burned his bridges in Denmark decided to see if he could enlist the support of his brothers. Beorn and Harold had been given a share of the renegade’s lands. He appeals to them to support him in his plea to the king to be reinstated. Beorn might have agreed at first but then Harold comes along and outright refuses, causing Beorn to abandon the idea. Harold must have been disgusted at his brother’s behaviour. If he’d been able to forgive his brother his transgressions, he might have agreed to give them back but there was clearly a dislike of his brother, and who could blame him?

Edward wasn’t very keen either. He orders him out of the country with four days to leave but Swegn is not for giving up and he sought out his cousin once again, perhaps relieved to find him without Harold breathing down his neck at Pevensey. This time Beorn agrees.

Here I want to rewind and shout at Beorn. “No! Stop! Don’t!” But who am I to get in the way of a good soap opera storyline? And let’s face it, it is a fabulous tale!

So silly Beorn, who never had a gut feeling in his life, takes just three men with him and agrees to go with Swegn to Bosham where he had left his ships. There must have been an argument between he and Swegn and perhaps Beorn then felt he could no longer agree to support him. The temperamental outlaw then had Beorn bound and dragged on to his ship. They sailed west to Dartmouth where Beorn was murdered and dumped/buried on shore.

Harold and Beorn must have been close as he made sure that Beorn’s body was rescued and taken to rest in the Old Minster in Winchester next to his uncle Cnut. When the king found out he was not happy as one can imagine. He and the whole army declared Swegn a nithing –basically a nefarious fellow and an outlaw which meant he could be killed on the spot. Even Swegn’s own men deserted him leaving him with no more than two ships. Fearing that he had completely stitched himself up, he decided to sail to Bruges where he was welcomed by Count Baldwin who, by his actions must have liked him for some reason.

So how does one come back from this? Surely now he will never be forgiven.

Dad Godwin, seems to have kept well out of Swegn’s affairs. I doubt he didn’t have an opinion on his eldest son’s deeds but whatever they were, no one has made any mention of them. At this stage, when Swegn made the accusation against his mother is not clear. It is not certain if it was before he went off the rails or during? I would imagine that this idea he was not Godwin’s son, but the son of that famous Danish king, Cnut, was a seed planted in the young Swegn’s mind, perhaps by someone who knew/suspected an affair between Cnut and the sister (Gytha) of his one time friend, Ulf. Whether or not Godwin was party to the rumour, or knew nothing about it until Swegn brought it to light many years later, it is not known. But I would imagine with or without the knowledge, this would have been a terrible hurtful blow for Godwin. But he seems to have forgiven his son all the same.

Ian Walker states that Godwin put pressure on Edward to return him to power although doesn’t name his source, but in 1050, the Bishop of Worcester met with him in Flanders, heard his confession and gave him absolution. He brings him back to England and supports Swegn to plead of the king his mercy and forgiveness. It does not seem unreasonable that this time Godwin, who was getting on a bit now, might well have also gone to Edward and begged for his son to be brought back. With this pressure put upon him from all sides, Edward caved in and I’m certain it was against his chagrin that Swegn is given his office and his lands back.

The bad boy of Wessex doesn’t appear to have learned his lesson. It was not long before he was building up resentment against the king’s nephew Ralph de Mantes and his Norman colony in Herefordshire where they were building castles in the manner of the French on the continent. He might also have been resentful toward Harold who was on good terms with Ralph. Harold was said to have been a Godfather to Ralph’s son, also named Harold.

Then the final nail in Swegn’s coffin was banged in.

In the Summer of 1051, the whole Godwin family were to come under scrutiny after they rebelled against King Edward. The incident in Dover that set king and earl against each other seems to have been engineered by the king’s French household members at least one of whom was Godwin’s nemesis and arch rival for the king’s counsel.

The king called upon Godwin to punish the town of Dover severely after his brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne was supposedly attacked by the townsmen on his way back home to France. Godwin refused and he, Harold and Swegn were called to account when they refused to harm the town. Swegn and Godwin had to give up hostages on the 8th of September and on the 21st of that same month, they were to meet with the king in London. Word came through that if Swegn turned up on the 21st, he would be in serious trouble because he had been outlawed again without even having seen the king. The whole family were worried as men began to desert them, not keen to be part of a civil war. None of them went to London on the 21st and the whole family were given just days to get out of England or be killed on site.

They split. Swegn offered Harold his ships that were waiting in Bristol and Harold took Leofwin with him and went off to Ireland to recruit mercenaries in Dublin. The rest of the family fled to Bruges in Flanders, Swegn going with them.

Swegn knew he had no more cards to play. No more lives to throw away and no more bridges to burn. The only way out of the mess he had made was to go on a pilgrimage – yes in medieval times, this is what the bad boys did – and he was said to have walked all the way to Jerusalem barefoot, only to die of the cold somewhere in Constantinople or thereabouts as he was returning home only ten days or so after the rest of his family had returned to power from their exile in a blaze of glory. Malmesbury though, has him attacked by Saracens.

Whatever the circumstances, he must have cut a sad figure, alone, barefoot, wearing the clothing of a pauper, shivering on a hill top with only a thin blanket for comfort as the freezing rain soaks him, completely stripped of his hubris and his arrogance. Of course this is my imagining, however it cannot be hard to visualise this sad reckoning and its hard not to feel a pang of regret for the once colourful, but self destructive son who came into this world with such promise, and left it completely bereft of his integrity.

He left behind one son, Hakon, who was still, at his death, a hostage in Normandy and who was said to have died at Hastings as a teenager not long after setting foot in his home with his uncle Harold in 1064.

My Favourite Historical Figure: Harold Godwinson

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 felled by an arrow on the Bayeux Tapestry, but was this all that it seemed to be?

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.

Harold with William in Normandy

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.

School tools: whale-bone writing-tablet and styluses from the middle Anglo-Saxon period

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.

Harold and Tostig go at each other in front of the king

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.

The Godwinson brothers, Leofwin and Gyrth, are depicted being killed on the Bayeux Tapestry

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

Cnut has Eadric beheaded

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

Attack on Dover, llustration by Edouard Zier from a History of England, 1903

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.

Harold making his oath in Normandy to William, swearing on holy relics

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.

Edith Swanneck looking for Harold’s body

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

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

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

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William shows his men that he is still alive

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

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

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

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

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

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A representation of the Papal Banner on the BT

Image by Eugene Ipavec, 21 May 2006

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

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

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

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Odo encourages the boys

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

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

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

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

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Norman infantryman

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

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

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The English are surrounded after the Norman’s feigned retreat

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

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Death of Leofwin and Gyrth

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

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The fight carries on around Harold’s standards

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

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

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

Primary Sources

Guy de Amiens  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown

William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi

Benoit de Sainte Maure  Chronique des ducs de Normandie

References

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

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

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