So, we have come, finally, to the end of the road that took us on our journey to the Battle of Hastings. By the end of December, William was now Harold’s successor, refusing to acknowledge Harold’s reign at all. William, the Bastard of Normandy, had finally got his wish: to rule the most coveted kingdom in the world. In his lifetime, William had managed to achieve what might have been to some lesser resilient men, an impossible dream. As a young boy he endured dangers that no child should have to suffer, with attempts being made on his life and having to hide in peasants hovels. As a young man, he fought for the right to rule his duchy, and later he had to endure the king of France’s treachery, leading invasions into his Norman territories. The king of France had once been William’s protector and ally, but had betrayed him, joining forces with Geoffrey Martell, who had once been their mutual enemy.
By the time he reached his prime, well into his thirties, he had been able to assert power in Normandy and drew Brittany into his enclave. It was about this time, that he must have begun thinking about the supposed ‘promise’ that William had perceived that his cousin, Edward, King of England, had offered him. Whether Edward had been flippant, or had been manipulated into agreeing to make William his heir, or whether William had believed that Edward had agreed, or whether Edward had agreed, then later changed his mind, we will never know, but the evidence that Eadmer gives us is very telling. Personally, I believe there may have been some manipulation of Edward during that visit in the autumn of 1051, by both William, and Robert Champart, then Archbishop of Canterbury. In later years, as the Norman regime began to dwindle in power in England, I think it is fair to say that Edward’s influences were erring more to the English and we see how William had also used cunning to manipulate Harold into swearing an oath to support his claim.
Edward was a weak king in many ways, but in others he was stubborn, and strong willed. He had only been able to assert himself over his nobles, on one occasion when he had the whole of the Godwin family exiled; and his queen, Godwin’s daughter, banished to a nunnery. It didn’t take the other English nobles long to be alarmed at Edward’s growing faction of Norman officials and they refused to resist Godwin’s return from exile, compelling Edward to reinstate the family back into power. Edward had never forgotten the part Godwin had played in the death of his brother, Alfred, who was brutally blinded by agents acting for Harold Harefoot and for whom Godwin had been serving at the time. Although Godwin had protested his innocence, and had been proclaimed innocent by a jury of twelve men, Edward would forever hold him responsible. It was at an Easter feast that Edward was to bring up the subject of the death of Alfred again, and Godwin, frustrated at having the accusation flung in his face once more, was beset by a stroke, dying a few days later. Edward, hopefully because he was feeling guilty, offered the family his own personal apartments to nurse him in.
The earldom of Wessex, was then passed on to Harold, which left East Anglia free to be Alfgar of Mercia’s once more. As his father’s successor, Harold was able to start asserting his own authority in the once ancient kingdom. Wessex was a powerful and wealthy earldom and Harold was able to endorse his rise to power by becoming the king’s right hand man.
William was obviously of the belief that he was in line for the throne, but Edward had not confirmed this by the time he was dead, although William would have everyone believe that he had sent the powerful earl of Wessex, (Harold) with gifts and a message that Edward had not forgotten his promise of all those years ago. And this was their insistence, despite the fact that Edward had sent a mission to Europe to search for his nephew, Edward the Exile so that he could have an heir of the same blood as The House of Wessex. Therefore, if anyone should have been in line for the throne, it should have been Edward the Exile’s son, Edgar the Atheling. William did not seem to have any regard for anyone else’s claim, rightful or not.
But it was Harold Godwinson, King Edward’s brother-in-law, who got the job in the end, though Edward seems to have enjoyed keeping everyone in the dark until he was on his deathbed. It was most likely that in an effort to stop the succession of William, the Witan accepted Harold’s claim, or they may have persuaded him sometime before Edward’s death, and had him crowned as soon as possible. Edgar’s claim seems to have not even been considered, and with the storms brewing south of the channel and from the north, it seemed sensible to choose a man who had been tried and tested and found not wanting. Harold, though not as experienced in warfare as William, nor was he as ruthless, was the most experienced of the English nobles, not only in battle tactics, but also in diplomacy and politics. Why would they have picked a young, untried boy over a man such as he?
It is quite clear that the English had no desire to have William rule them. He was a Norman through and through, and if Harold was not of royal blood himself, he was still an Englishman, born of an English father and a Danish mother, which might also endear him to those who lived in the Danelaw. The Normans were very different from the English, and the Anglo-Danes. At least those who were of Danish descent had a common culture and law code, they could understand each other, they shared a common history. The Normans, despite their Scandinavian blood, were completely alien to the men and women of England, sharing no such common history with the English and had absorbed French culture and law so much into their psyche, that they had become more French than Norse by 1066. One can see that to an Englishman, common or noble, it would be far more desirable to be ruled by someone who understood their language, their customs and their needs. And Harold had seen the ruthlessness of the Normans in action, had been on campaign with William into Brittany whilst he was there in 1064, in the hope that he could free his kin from William’s bondage. Instead, Harold had been manipulated by William, having no choice but to become William’s vassal, selling himself into the bargain in return for his freedom, and only succeeding in returning to England with Hakon, his nephew, and not with Wulfnoth. Harold’s youngest brother, Wulfnoth, was to stay in the care of William, remaining a hostage until Harold had secured William on the throne. One cannot imagine the torment that outcome must have had on Harold, whose intentions in going to Normandy had been entirely for a different reason. Later, when he took the crown, he knew his brother’s fate to be sealed. Whether Harold lived or died, Wulfnoth would never be free.
And as events led to Hastings, culminating in the death of England’s chosen king, those who were waiting in London to hear the outcome of the battle, would look to their boy king, Edgar Edwardson, grandson of Edmund Ironside of the House of Wessex. Would things have turned out differently if Harold had supported Edgar as regent? Most likely not. William would still have come for his crown, and Hardrada, too, would still have come. With Edgar on the throne, William would still have laid his claims, despite Edgar’s being the stronger. After all, he paid no mind to Edgar, even though the lad had been proclaimed king, post Hastings, by the surviving English. Such was this Norman invader’s arrogance, he would dismiss the claims of a boy whose right was greater than his own, and proclaim himself the true, righteous king, chosen by God; for had he not the papal banner that proved God was on his side? Edgar, it seems, was soon dropped by those who had raised him up to be king, in favour of the Conqueror. The boy who would be king, never had a chance.
William, however, was not loved by the English. He spent the first five years of his rule putting down rebellion after rebellion. Soon, there would be scant numbers of English nobility and most official administration posts, both secular and ecclesiastic would be taken up by newly appointed foreigners. French only would be spoken at court by the ruling classes who saw the spoken English as far too rustic for their tongues. English was soon exchanged for Latin, which became the language of the clerics, where English had once been used freely. But one thing that didn’t change, were the people of England themselves, who forever remained and would remain as English as they had always been.
Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia
Vita Edwardi Regis
Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.
Barlow F. (2003) The Godwins, Pearson Education LTD, Great Britain.
Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.
Swanton M. (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (new ed) Phoenix Press, Great Britain.
Walker I (2004) Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.