Chapter Five: The Race For England is On!

By May, things were moving fast in England, just as they were in Normandy. King Harold must have known that his onetime friend, William of Normandy, would not take his oath breaking very lightly and would be making preparations to invade. One of the English spies sent over to Normandy, had been caught already, which proved that Harold was aware of William’s plans. He also knew that the northerners could be fickle toward the kings of Wessex, and with Tostig prowling around looking for support anywhere he could find it, and Harald Sigurdson, (Hardrada), King of Norway, ready to renew his claim to England, Harold knew he needed the north onside. Many of them were Anglo-Danish, and may have welcomed a Scandinavian ruler, as they had done in the earlier part of the 11thc, with Sweyn and Cnut. According to the Anglo Saxon chronicle, Harold returned to Westminster from York for Easter, April 16th. This means he was in the north sometime in February or March. Most historians believe that this was the time when he married Aldith (Ealdgyth/Eadgyth) of Mercia, sister of the northern earls, Morcar and Edwin, and onetime Queen of Wales. Legend has it that Harold ‘rescued’ her from Gruffudd’s clutches. Probably romantic nonsense, just like Edith Swanneck, as reported by one website about Harold, identifying his body by the words tattooed on his chest, ‘Edith and England’. I wonder what the new Mrs G must have made of that when she saw her new husband’s tats for the first time.


The Chronicles lack information regarding Harold’s union with Aldith, which seems to be par for the course with the monkish writers of the day. They were very sparing in their writings. Information Governance must have been very tight in those days; however, it is likely that Harold brought Aldith with him back to Westminster from York, to present to his council as his new queen. Chroniclers, William of Jumièges and Walter Map, both describe her as being very beautiful. Florence of Worcester confirms that she was wife on Harold II. At the time of Harold’s death, she was not known to possess much wealth and was recorded, as it is thought, having owned some land in Binley, Warwickshire. It is not known if she had land in Wales, having been the wife of Gruffudd, for there is no evidence to be found of this. After Harold’s death, she disappears from history, into the mists of time.

Aldith and Gruffudd

There was never a coronation for Aldith, probably because Harold had his hands full, organising his defences. Soon after the hairy star had lit up the land like a massive boil on the sky’s face for a week, Tostig sailed to the Isle of Wight with his fleet from Flanders, and was given provisions and money by the leading men there. Tostig, having been exiled from England after not accepting his deposition as Earl of Northumbria in favour of Morcar, the son of Alfgar of Mercia, took some ships and fled with his family and some loyal thegns to his father-in-law in Flanders. It is said that he had tried to ally himself with William of Normandy, but evidence seems to be sketchy on this point. In any case it was his father-in-law, Count Baldwin who aided him with men and ships. He raided the ships along the English coast to Sandwich but when Harold mobilised his own great fleet, Tostig had to turn tail and row! He sailed further north and tried to entice his brother Gyrth to join him at a stop in East Anglia, but this was unsuccessful. so he raided Norfolk and Lincoln and went on to Scotland to stay with his great friend. King Malcolm.

Tostig sails to the ISle of Wight

Harold set to gathering his own fleet, ‘a greater raiding ship army and also a greater raiding land army, the like of which no other king in the land, had done before’ according to the D Chronicle of the ASC. And this was because, Harold had heard that – never mind (to coin a phrase) that ‘Winter was Coming’, or Tostig even, in 1066 it was William who was coming.


Its not hard to imagine some amongst Harold’s camp scoffing at the likelihood that William could undertake such a huge mission; to bring an army big enough to conquer and vanquish the English, creating a fleet big enough to carry an army of thousands. Its also not hard to visualise Harold turning to the doubting Thomases. and saying in a voice serious enough to make them believe,

“I have seen this duke in action. I have seen his warfare, his grit and his determination. That he has travailed throughout his life, and is still alive is a miracle in itself. He, and his army, will come, I doubt this not; aye, and he will bring his warhorses too. Such is his resolve and resilience.”

So what started all this? The prologue to my book Sons of the Wolf  gives us a bit if an insight:

In the autumn of 1052, two young boys were stolen away from all they had ever known and set on a journey to a place where they would remain hostage for many years. Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, the sons of Godwin and Swegn Godwinson, were not to see a familiar comforting face for many years. They were whisked away across the sea, to the court of Normandy, by Robert Champart, the former Archbishop of Cantwarabyrig. Fleeing the return of his nemesis, Godwin, as he stormed back from exile, Champart knew the part he had played in Godwin’s downfall, meant that his life was in danger. If he stayed, it would be at his peril, for Godwin’s revenge would be devastating. Some say the boys were meant as hostages for William, the bastard-born Duke of Normandy, sent with King Edward’s consent as surety that he would name William as his heir. Others say he took the boys out of hatred for Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex. And it was also said that by performing this cruel act, Champart was killing more than one bird with one stone. Whatever the motive, and Champart most likely had more than one, this ill-fated abduction was to be the start of a thread that would eventually spin the downfall of a powerful dynasty.
Onginnen þa spinnestran…
(Let the spinners begin…)

And what was to happen, years later, when, in the autumn of 1064, Harold  sailed to William’s court, was to be the catalyst that would propel England into war with the Normans and their French allies. And later, in 1065, the fates were forced to spin another thread when Harold, doing his best to mediate in a dispute between Tostig, the king and the northern thegns, was forced to support his brother’s exile. This latter event was to bring the mighty ‘Hardrada’ to England’s shores, thus adding another dimension to Harold’s eventual downfall, despite his victory over the Northmen at Stamford Bridge.

Primary sources

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

The Bayeux Tapestry

William de Jumieges.

Walter Map

Florence of Worcester

Further Reading 

Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066: The Hidden history of the Bayeux Tapestry Harper Perennial, Suffolk.

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.

Chapter Four: Hairy Comets and Important decisions!

“In this year King Harold came from York to Westminster at the Easter…then on April 16. Then throughout all England, a sign such as men never saw before was seen in the heavens. Some men declared that it was the star comet, which some men called the ‘haired’ star; and it appeared first on the eve on the Great Litany, 24 April, and shone thus  all the week…” The Worcester Chronicle

The Panel of the BT that shows the Haired Comet

April 1066 was the month when the Haired Comet appeared over England, lighting up the sky in an extraordinary event. The Medieval mind, very much charged by the Church, viewed this type of phenomena as portentous; something evil was about to befall the world. However, someone else’s bad karma, is very often someone else’s blessing. Given his precarious situation, Harold, who saw the comet when it first appeared, must have felt uneasy. He had made an oath, touching holy relics; or at least the box they were in, and now, doom was lurking in the sky, signifying in a big way, that some sort of disaster was about to befall England. It must have been a worrying time for him.

We have already learned that upon hearing that Harold had stolen his crown, William had fallen into silence. David Howarth, in his book 1066: The Year of the Conquest, presents us with the emotional and psychological issues that now faced the duke. Fifteen years ago, he had been led to believe that Edward desired him to be his successor and if that belief had somehow waned over the years, it had been suddenly revitalised in the unexpected shape of Harold Godwinson, who, as far as William was concerned, had come to to his court reiterate, not only Edward’s original offer, but ensure his own (Godwinson’s) personal part in it.

William must have been overwhelmed with joy when he got word that Harold had been taken captive on his way to visit him. Once the English earl was in his clutches, the duke let the world and his wife know, that here was England’s premier earl, sent by his most beloved cousin, King Edward, to confirm upon him the heirdom of his kingdom. Most likely William had been letting all the courts of Europe know about his cousin Edward’s offer to him since it was first made in 1051, long before Harold allegedly came to renew the offer in 1064. Almost eighteen months before the Haired Star appeared in the sky, William had been assured of it in his mind, that England had not forgotten him, and he could claim, with total confidence, that he was going to be king of England, one day soon.

No wonder William went into a black dog the day he found out what had happened with his crown. Sneaky Harold had shown his true colours and swiped it and was walking about with it on his unfaithful English head. That very thing that William coveted most in the world, a kingdom, was now in the hands of the man who had sworn an oath to him – on holy relics – to be his vassal and support his claim! He’d thought of Harold as his friend; the earl had been a drinking companion, his comrade in arms. William was stunned. That Harold had dared to go against him and betray him, was one thing – but to steal his crown – that was utterly unforgivable. Unforgivable!!!

Harold is crowned shortly after Edward’s death

That Harold had been crowned so soon after Edward was interred in his tomb, was obviously to avoid giving William any chance to rush over the channel, and make his claim. Harold had outdone him, and it wasn’t fair. William was now left with a personal hurt that cut deeply into his soul, from a ‘friend’ who had promised him the world. He now realised that Harold had deceived him from the very start; even as he stood with his hands on the relics, stating his oath to him, he had spoken falsely. It never occurred to William that he had put Harold  under extreme duress at the time, nor did it occur to him that an oath made under duress could be, according to canon law, rescinded at a later time (Salonen et al 2009)

William orders the commissioning of boat building for his expedition to England

But aside the personal affront he felt at Harold’s actions, William was also embarrassed. He was looking like a fool; and those who looked down on him for being bastard born, thought he had been well and truly put in his place. So William had to think very carefully about his next move. His immediate plea to the English court that Harold should fulfill his promise to him, was, as one could imagine, rejected by Harold, who claimed that he had been chosen by the Witan and anointed before God – and indeed that was how things were done in England at that time. A strange concept for the French to comprehend, where the rule of primogeniture was usually the way they did it.

William, however came to the realisation that there was no point in arguing. He must set himself to action. He called a meeting of his magnates on February 2nd and between himself and his inner circle of closest advisers, he convinced them that a conquest of England was possible. William would wrest the crown from the usurper’s oath-breaking, deceitful head with force if that was the way of it. In March of 1066, the Duke of Normandy began his preparations to build boats that would take himself and his army overseas to England to claim the crown that he felt was rightfully his.

Harold on his way to Normandy

Harold didn’t rest on his laurels, either. He knew that his onetime bromance with the fearless, staid, Duke of Normandy had come to an end, and although it did not seem particularly likely that William could undertake the kind of mission he was about to, Harold was not complacent. He knew his life and kingdom were in jeopardy. He’d set about calling up his army, and arranged for the fleet to assemble.

But Harold had more than just Normandy to deal with. Brother Tostig, was let loose somewhere, itching for revenge, and making friends with Harald Sigurdson. This other Harald was also after putting his tough hide on an English throne; his claim was something to do with a very complicated pact made by two Scandinavian kings, long ago. Sigurdsson used this pact that he had inherited as an excuse for his claim on the English kingdom.

So Harold was beset on all sides. He must have regretted making that trip to Normandy. All throughout his life, he had hardly put a foot wrong. Competent, charming, likeable, shiny and golden Harold had taken the wrong turn. His downfall started when he’d climbed into that boat in Bosham and made his way to Normandy – ok so he ended up in Ponthieu, but his destination had been Normandy. If only he had listened to his king and heeded his warning. According to Eadmer of Canterbury, Harold went to Normandy to negotiate the release of the hostages, Wulfnoth and Hakon, both of whom were related to the Godwinsons. Eadmer also informs us that Edward had cautioned against this enterprise, and advised Harold, that if he insisted on going, he would be opening up a jar of worms by doing so. And low and behold, that’s exactly what happened, only the worms that got out were not the kind you’d want to put on the end of your fishing rod.

Primary Sources

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Further Reading

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

Douglas D.C., (1999) William the Conqueror Yale University Press, London.

K. Salonen, L Schmugge (2009)  A Sip From the Well of Grace Catholic University America Pr; 1 Pap/Cdr edition

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

Chapter Three: The Cat is Out of the Bag


In Rouen, Duke William is readying himself for an exhilarating day of hunting. The noise and bustle of humans calling one another, hounds barking, hawks squawking, horses neighing and horns blowing fill the air as William and his courtiers organise themselves to ride out. It is a crisp winter’s day, and puffs of frost emanate from the mouths of man and beast. William is happy, because across the sea, his old cousin, Edward, King of England, has been ailing and it seems he is deteriorating daily. Soon, the message will come that will inform him of Edward’s death and the English will look to him for their king, as promised by the noble and honourable Earl Harold, little more than a year since.


William had been thinking about it for days, wondering if Lord Harold would come himself to kneel before him as his true and loyal vassal. The duke had pictured it in his mind. He liked Harold. The man had shown himself to be affable, strong, considerate, and trustworthy when he had visited him, to inform him of Edward’s wishes that he take the throne upon his death. And when the duke’s hunt was interrupted by the messenger, coming sooner than William had anticipated, his heart leapt in expectation.

The man went down on one knee and told him that he brought him news of the king of England. William, being in a good mood, orders him to stand and he takes the scrolled message from the man. William has never felt the need to read, or write. He is a warrior, what does a warrior ruler need to be literate for? He hands the scroll to his steward, William FitzOsbern, who reads the words on the parchment.

“What is it, FitzOsbern?”the duke asks of his friend, “Has my dear cousin, the King of England passed?” He looks grim, for he doesn’t want to seem eager to take another man’s place when his body is not even cold.

The steward’s face gives away nothing. FitzOsbern simply looks at him, and says, bemused, “King Edward is dead. Harold, Earl of Wessex, has been raised to the throne of the Kingdom of England.”

The above is based on a piece in the Roman de Rou, which was written by a poet called Wace a hundred years after the event. Of course I have fictionalised it, but it is not hard to visualise William’s emerging excitement as he hears rumours of Edward’s illness and deterioration. The verse says that William had just strung his bow, in readiness for his day’s hunting. He handed it to a page and stood there, his face a picture of intense anger, but saying nothing. He laced and unlaced his cloak, and nobody dared to speak to him. He abandoned the hunt and took a boat back to his palace over the River Seine. Once inside, he is said to have sat on a bench, resting his head against a pillar, his cloak over his head, hiding the rancour in his face. His people obviously knew his little foibles, and when it was not a good time to approach the duke, so they left him as he was, no one wishing to be the one who triggered his wrath.

The story goes on that after awhile, FitzOsbern comes in, humming a song… Humming a song? One wonders what kind of song would have suited the occasion. “Ding dong the king is dead. They’ve put my crown on another’s’ head?”                                                            Well, in any case William FitzOsbern is a trusted friend, and naturally, people wanted to know what had upset the duke, so they asked him. And he told them. Hearing his voice, the Duke William uncovered his face and looked at him.

“It’s no good trying to hide the news, my lord,” Fitz Osbern says. “They are all talking about it all over the city. No time to grieve. Something has to be done!”


William must have felt humiliated in front of his court. No doubt this would have fuelled his fury even more. How dare the English earl betray his oath to him? An oath that was freely given after I promised him he would retain his earldom, his power, and his riches. And now he perjures himself by taking the crown for himself? How fickle and dishonourable a servant he was to my cousin that he has betrayed his wishes! 

This is one of those moments when one would have wished being a fly on a wall was possible. In public, William would have retained his dignity; behind closed doors, I wonder if a few servants received a kick or two! William was convinced that Edward had promised him the crown. And he might well have done, in fact the evidence is very convincing, but to what extent he had made this offer is not known (see Chapter Two #2). It might have been Edward’s intention to only ‘consider’ him as a claimant, and not much more, for Edward’s behaviour in later years does not corroborate any such firm promise.


But it is easy to see why a man such as William would have thought he was entitled to the crown. After all, he had been invited to England in the autumn of 1051, most likely on Edward’s behalf by fellow Norman, Robert Champart, Archbishop of Canterbury no less, to discuss things of interest with the King of England. And what seems to have been discussed, was from Edward’s point of view, merely an idea that would never come to fruition, and from William’s, a firm offer of friendship and a promise to consider him as Edward’s heir and successor. At that time, England’s leading noble family, the Godwins, had been in conflict with Edward and Champart. They were exiled, leaving the Norman camp predominantly in power and a great influence on Edward, who was more Norman than English. And it is quite possible that at that time, his feelings of loathing toward Earl Godwin, meant that Edward may have been in favour of William becoming heir to his throne, but a year or so later, things were to take a turn against the Norman faction, when Godwin and his family blasted across the sea like a veritable maelstrom, returned from exile.

However, William seems to have been oblivious to the unexpected power swap in England when Godwin and his family were reinstated months after his visit – or perhaps he thought that Godwin’s return would have no bearing on a pledge made to him by his elderly cousin. However many years later, as luck would have it, and just to reinforce William’s mindset, in the Autumn of 1064, along comes Harold, Earl of Wessex, all shiny and golden, sent by King Edward himself, to offer his fealty and assistance when the time came for Edward to depart from this world and leave his crown and kingdom to William.

But was that the real purpose of Harold’s visit? Did Edward, in 1064, approaching 60 and in good health (he was well enough to go hunting in the Forest of Dean that autumn) make up his mind to send his numero uno dux anglorum across the sea to William in Normandy, with the sole intention of confirming him as his heir? Norman sources say that the English monarch was deteriorating in health, and that he wanted to finalise his affairs in good time before he became too ill to do so, but the English evidence does not concur. As I have already stated, Edward was showing no signs of illness, and the final decision of who got to sit on the throne, had to be agreed by the witan.  It is unlikely that the nobles of the witan would have agreed to William as king, as Edward, by now, would have realised. William had no connection to England; no lands, no interests, no mutual customs or bloodline. And young Edgar Atheling, whom the English had gone to great trouble to bring home from Europe, was the only other male relative with a direct blood- link to the Royal House of Wessex. And as far as we know, no other had been given the title of atheling – an old English word that meant prince, or throneworthy.

Harold sets out to Normandy
From the BT: Harold and his men set sail after a feasting in Bosham for Normandy

So, if neither the witan nor Edward agreed to send Harold on his visit to William in his court, why did Harold go to Normandy? We know that Harold’s kinsmen, Wulfnoth and Hakon, were there as hostages, taken most likely by the hapless Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Champart, when he fled from Godwin’s wrath. Did Harold go to Normandy to ask the duke for their release? Was that the true purpose of his visit? Or did he, as the Norman sources declare, go to offer support to the duke upon Edward’s death?   However, that is a story, my friends, we will talk about later. Stay tuned!


Primary sources

Gesta Guillelmi, William of Poitiers

Roman de Rou Wace

Further Reading

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

The Shifting Sands of Succession: Guest Post from Robert Bayliss

One of the amazing things about the internet is that it gives you the opportunity to meet and make friends that are like-minded and one of these people is fabulous fantasy author, Robert Bayliss whose influences are Anglo Saxon history and Tolkien amongst many others. Rob is also works as an admin with me on The Review. I asked Rob if he would like to help me commemorate this pivotal event in our history. Luckily, he jumped at the chance and here is the result! Rob’s books can be found here.
950 years ago in January news reached the ears of William of Normandy that Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex, after the death of Edward the Confessor, had grasped the crown of England for himself. In a rage, William began gathering an invasion fleet with which to wrest the Kingdom of England from the usurping Saxon Earl.

William prepares for invading

Of course history is mainly recorded by the victors; legends are built and embellished and acts of violence and terror legitimised to paint the legacy of a conqueror in a positive light. Few conquests have ever been as total as the Norman invasion. The old English order was swept away, lords banished from their own halls; an entire ruling class either dead on the field of Hastings or exiled from their own lands and positions of local authority. A foreign tongue took hold, while those who spoke English marked themselves out as a conquered people under an alien yoke. The records of this momentous time are therefore very slewed towards the Norman viewpoint; telling us that the throne had been promised to William by Edward the confessor back in the 1050’s and that Harold himself had sworn upon holy relics, in 1064, to support this claim. But how legitimate is this, and how and why did Harold find himself in William’s court in the first place?
In 1064 Harold having left his family seat of Bosham found himself shipwrecked on the coast controlled by Count Guy of Ponthieu. Recognising the hostage value of England’s most powerful earl Guy captured Harold and held him at his castle at Beaurain. Upon hearing of his vassal’s capture of the Dux Anglorum, Duke William demanded his release and paid Guy a ransom for his prize. Most people know what happened next; Harold swore allegiance to William on holy relics, promising to support William’s claim to the throne. Indeed, this oath, over holy relics, became William’s main casus belli, enabling Harold to be cast as an honourless usurper and even getting William a papal blessing for his military endeavour.


William and Harold
William comes to Harold’s rescue

We have three near contemporary historical sources recording this event; Harold’s embassy is shown in the Bayeaux Tapestry, where he accompanied William in his campaign against Conan of Brittany and also by the Norman chroniclers William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers – the latter the Arch Deacon of Lisieux. A later account is given by the English theologian and historian Eadmer, perhaps freed from the political restraints of the others.
William of Jumieges states that Edward had sent his most powerful of Earls to confirm Edward’s offer of the succession to William and for the Earl to swear fealty to the King’s chosen successor. This is echoed in the Poitiers account which records a speech supposedly given by William on the eve of Hastings:
“Finally Edward sent Harold himself to Normandy so that he could swear to me there in my presence what his father and Earls Leofric and Siward and Archbishop Stigand had sworn to me here in my absence. On the journey Harold incurred the danger of being taken prisoner, from which, using diplomacy and force, I rescued him. Through his own hands he made himself my vassal and with his own hand he gave me a firm pledge concerning the Kingdom of England.”


Harold makes his oath to  William

It all seems clear cut; Edward was ensuring that his wishes regarding the accession should be honoured by his brother in law, his most powerful Earl. Except that Edward’s actions don’t entirely tally with this theory and this narrative isn’t confirmed by non-Norman sources either’

It’s true that Edward had spent most of his first 30 years in exile in Normandy, during the reigns of Canute and his sons. Maybe such things had been discussed as he and his elder brother Alfred dreamt of regaining the throne, perhaps in exchange for Norman help?
Canute had built a North Sea empire encompassing England, Denmark and Norway. In the chaos following the king’s death Alfred landed in Sussex with a Norman bodyguard in 1035. He was met at Guildford by Earl Godwin of Wessex, who promised to escort him to London. Godwin had risen to prominence during Canute’s reign and had married Gytha who was related to the Danish royal family. Whether by the order of Canute’s son Harold Harefoot or of his own volition, Godwin killed Alfred’s bodyguard and sent the Atheling to Ely Cathedral. Before Alfred arrived at the island Ely he was cruelly blinded and died soon after. This atrocity tainted Godwin and the suspicions regarding his brother’s fate soured Edward’s opinion of the Earl of Wessex.

King Edward
Edward the Confessor

It is little wonder then that Edward would eventually come into dispute with the powerful Godwin family, despite marrying Godwin’s daughter Edith. No doubt attempting to secure an independent power base Edward surrounded himself with advisors from his former refuge. In 1051 a violent clash took place between the Count of Bologne and the people of Dover. Being in his earldom, Godwin was ordered to punish the town; a command which he refused to do bringing him directly into conflict with the king. With the help of Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria, Godwin of Wessex was forced to back down and exiled as punishment. Any hope that Edward may have sired an heir with his wife Edith seems to have evaporated during this period too and she was sent to a nunnery. With the Godwin’s exiled and apparently powerless, Edward once more granted office to his Norman friends and is said to have entertained William of Normandy in his court during this period. Perhaps it was now, his marriage seemingly in tatters and perhaps sickened by the scheming of his earls that Edward mulled over promising the succession to the Duke of Normandy?

It should be noted, however, that in C11th England such promises were not the King’s to give; a king’s will stood for something, as did inheritance, but the final decision always rested with the will of the Witan – the council of the most powerful nobles and clerics of the land.
That the Norman influence was disliked is borne out by the welcome given by Wessex to the return of Godwin and his sons, barring an unpleasant clash of arms in Porlock. It is clear that Edward was forced to come to an agreement with Godwin or risk an all-out civil war that he may welhave lost. It was a dramatic turn of fortune for the Godwins; their lands were reinstated and Edith returned to the King’s side as Queen of England. However part of the agreement restoring the Godwins was the yielding of hostages, thus Harold’s youngest brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon were given to the King’s custody. Both hostages were spirited away to Normandy by the fleeing Robert of Jumiege, Edward’s erstwhile Norman Archbishop. Obviously Edward’s Norman advisors feared reprisals with Godwin’s return.

The Death of Godwin
With the death of Godwin in 1053, Harold inherited both his father’s earldom of Wessex and his drive. He worked hard to regain his family’s favour with Edward and was successful, in conjunction with his brother Tostig, in countering the threat of Gruffydd ap Llewellyn of Wales which had steadily grown, especially with the death of Gruffydd’s father in law and ally Aelfgar Leofricsson, earl of Mercia.

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

During this period the issue of the succession to the childless Edward remained and in 1057 Edward sent for his half-brother and his family – Edward the Exile- the only other surviving members of the royal house of Wessex, to return to England from Hungary. This doesn’t seem like the actions of a king already settled on the accession of William of Normandy and yet, by the same token, with the later death of the Exile in England, Edward the Confessor made no clear attempts to entrench the Exile’s son – Edgar the Atheling – as his appointed heir. Perhaps he wished for a peaceful end to his reign and wanted to keep everyone guessing. The hawks were gathering as Edward aged, as well as William, other foreign claimants eyed the English crown greedily, such as Harald Hardrada of Norway and Sweyn II of Denmark. But crucially in the ten or so years since Edward’s crisis with Godwin there is no record of continued correspondence between Edward and William regarding the succession.

We are still left with the mystery of Harold’s expedition to Northern France. The Bayeaux Tapestry shows it clearly. It begins with Harold, a hunting hawk on his wrist, leaving Edward and heading to Bosham before taking ship. It shows Harold’s capture and William’s intervention. As Harold rides with William it is interesting to note that Harold’s hawk is now on William’s wrist. Harold is shown joining William in his Brittany campaign and is seen saving two Norman soldiers who have become trapped in quicksand. The campaign ends with the surrender of Conan of Brittany. As reward for his assistance William presents Harold with arms, in effect making him a knight (and perhaps claiming overlordship?). The next panel shows Harold swearing an oath over holy relics, yet it is interesting that the nature of the oath is not mentioned in the narrative margin. Clearly whoever it was who designed the tapestry, although aware of both the Poitiers and Jumiege narratives, did not entirely accept their details. The result is that the Tapestry has a remarkable neutral overview of events.
Harold’s expedition could be something else entirely. As Eadmer suggests later, it was Harold going to Normandy to secure the freedom of his younger brother and nephew who had been hostages for some ten years. Perhaps, after loyally serving Edward in the campaign against Gruffyrd, Harold was finally, reluctantly, given leave to seek their release; the exchanged hawk perhaps symbolic of a paid ransom. It is than very probable that Harold was tricked by William into giving an oath, perhaps he realised he was in a similar predicament to that of his brother and nephew? It could well be that the oath was merely a confirmation of the long standing treaty between the Duke and Edward. Harold was allowed to return to England with his nephew Hakon. The hapless Wulfnoth was not so fortunate and remained a hostage and, as events transpired, spent most of his life in captivity.
It seems odd to base an entire invasion on an oath quite possibly given under duress. Perhaps too much is made of it both by William and his namesakes of Jumiege and Poitiers.


Harold was only one earl after all. Surely William would have demanded hostages of all the other English Earls, not to mention holding Edgar the Atheling, if Harold’s expedition was indeed to affirm some supposed promise given by Edward the Confessor? It is also entirely probable that the ambitious William, born out of wedlock and constantly facing threats to his position, had always cast envious eyes towards the English throne. In marrying Matilda of Flanders in 1049 William not only secured his northern flank, he had also gained a descendant of Alfred the Great as a spouse.
If we return once again to the Bayeaux Tapestry there is an interesting scene on Harold’s return to Edward from his trip. If we bear in mind the clues hidden in the symbolism, Harold is shown in supplication to Edward and is accompanied by one of the King’s huscarls – his axe facing the Earl. Edward has a huscarl by his side as well but his axe crucially faces away from the king. It’s almost as if Edward is admonishing Harold. Eadmer continues with this theme, that Edward’s reluctance and warnings regarding Harold’s mission have been borne out; that William has tricked him and trouble is now stored for the future. However Eadmer is clear; Harold was forced to bow to force majeure.

It seems clear that both Eadmer and the Tapestry contradict the Norman narrative that Edward promised William the crown. Norman sources paint Edward as living a celibate, saintly life; although there is no evidence of this, certainly not prior to the crisis with Godwin – a recorded visit by them to Abingdon Abbey implies a loving couple. It is highly unlikely that they would be childless by design.
The whole narrative seems too manufactured; the propaganda of a conqueror justifying their actions, desperate to create a smooth transition from Edward to William. It absolves the victors of the guilty horror of the conquest, which was unnecessarily caused by the actions of the opportunist Harold. But by the same token so was Harald Hardrada, Sweyn of Denmark and certainly William of Normandy; at least Harold had the assent of the Witan.

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

Alas we will never entirely know the truth. Who knows what chronicles were hidden, destroyed or lost, as the Norman Conquest unfolded in its ruthless brutality after Hastings? However the Tapestry also offers us a clue as to Harold’s nature and William’s subsequent tactics to bring about a decisive battle.
We should be aware that Harold didn’t need to face William on October 14th 1066. After his victory over Harald at Stamford Bridge he could easily have stood off, rebuilding his forces and built a chain of strongpoints pinning William down. It was William who craved a single decisive battle, not Harold. However in landing at Pevensey, not only was William afforded the perfect landing place for his ships but he was also in the Godwin’s own backyard. He set about pillaging and firing the land because he knew – from Harold’s swift action in saving those Norman soldiers from the quicksand -that this “usurping Saxon Earl” was far from honourless; that King Harold would rush to defend his own.
The Norman & Saxon Kings – Christopher Brooke – 1963
The Godwins – Frank Barlow – 2002
Edward the Confessor – Frank Barlow – 1970
The Bayeux Tapestry


Chapter One: Death of a King

The events of 1066 were to change the face of England forever. Her landscape, her laws and customs, and her great ruling dynasties, were changed forever. As we approach the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, here on my website, I will be posting a series of blogs each month, to commemorate the events that led up to the great battle in which the flower of English youth lost their lives. We will be taking a sightseeing tour of the background to what happened and as we journey through the year chronologically, we’ll be exploring what motivated Harold to take the throne instead of backing the young, inexperienced Edgar, and why William believed he had a right to cross the sea, vanquish the English, kill their chosen king, and take the English throne for himself.

The Battle of Hastings on the Bayeux Tapestry

For the nobles of England, gathered in the Great Hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that Edward was dying, for he had always been quite a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true, he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had not shown signs of weakness in health unto then, and to know that their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty in those days, and he was in his 60th year, and would have been considered elderly by the standards of long ago, but little seems to have been done, according to what we know of the records, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his deceased older brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the Exile was located and he and his family were brought back to the country of his birth from a long exile in Hungary, and sadly, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile, died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only 5 at the time, took up the mantle of atheling, but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only 14 years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare, would not have put him in good stead for what was coming, two invasions of England; one from the north, and one from across the sea in Normandy.

Edward Ironside

Of course, the English could not have known what terrible events were about to descend upon them, but they would have known that William of Normandy had plans for the English crown, because Harold had been a guest at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for William, as the new king, upon Edward’s demise. He was also required to bend the knee as the duke’s liegeman, with the threat that he would never see his homeland again, nor his kinsmen, Wulfnoth and Hakon, the hostages he had gone to negotiate for, (Eadmer). Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. Harold Godwinson.

Harold swears oath on holy relics to William

The Vita Edwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in great detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset, but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the Abbey of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so on the eve of the king’s dying, there had been no proclaimed heir apparent who would take the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the Witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s death and his last minute deathbed announcement, the name of his preferred nomination: the man to whom he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also that visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

Anglo Saxon king and his Witan

So at the last moments of the king’s life, everyone must have known already, who that man was. It was, I’m sure, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final element to make the procedure complete – the king’s endorsement, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to say his name, and that was what they had been waiting for, his closest companions, gathered around his bed within the chamber,;his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how they waited, straining their ears every time Edward made to speak; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

Wsard's death scene
Edward’s funeral and death scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry

According to the Vita AEdwardi Regis, the king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, as according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled half way up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered at a later point.

Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen to whom the complaints of the old king were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman, but then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me, but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping and he spoke words of comfort to her and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”

It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve it in that case. Robert FitzWimarc was a Norman, or perhaps a Breton, as his name suggests, but nonetheless, he had been brought to England by Edward from Normandy with him into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch that Edward had indeed announced the man who would follow him to the throne. Harold Godwinson.

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

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

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