Chapter Ten: The Golden Warrior

Earl Harold was now consecrated king and met little quiet as long as he ruled the realm.” – The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Harold Hunting in Normandy -The Bayeux Tapestry

Post Stamford Bridge, Harold dealt fairly with the remnants of the surviving Norwegians after chasing them all the way to Riccall. All their leaders were dead, but among them was Harald Hardrada’s son, Olaf, whom he allowed to go home, peacefully, after he had sworn an oath to forever remain there and to not come invade England again. There were so few of the Norse army left that out of 300 ships, Olaf needed only 24 to take them home. Olaf was as good as his word, and this was passed down through his successors, for the Norse would never again blight England’s shores in this manner. This act of compassion by Harold G, might seem to some contemporaries as weakness, but there were other examples where he showed tolerance and fairness, where others would not have. Harold showed time after time that he preferred diplomacy over aggression, and  favoured peace over killing. Only when pushed beyond the limits of what might be considered reasonable, did Harold take the heavy handed approach and when he made his mind up to put an end to something, he did not balk to use his military might, as the Welsh king, Gruffudd, Tostig and Hardrada were to find out. Harold was, indeed, the ultimate Golden Warrior.

Anglo Saxon feast

Sometime around the 29th or 30th, Harold was still in Yorkshire, resting his army, tending his wounded, burying his brother, and celebrating his victory, when he heard that William had arrived and that he hadn’t come for a holiday, or to play chess. He was here for his crown, Harold’s crown. Harold had disbanded the fyrd in the south around about the 8th of September, believing that William was not crossing this year, and would not come now at least until next spring when the winds would be more favourable. Harold had marched north as soon as he could ready himself when he’d heard the terrible news from Yorkshire, that Edwin and Morcar, his young brother-in-laws, had been defeated at Gate Fulford, by Harald and Tostig. He must have been so confident in his belief that William would not come now, that he felt able to take the fighting men of Sussex with him. Seeing as there had been no opposition when William had arrived at Pevensey, its probably safe to assume Harold had marched off with them, no doubt leaving the coastal guard who had been able to send swift news of William’s landing.

William lands at Pevensey

So, Harold, having allowed some of the fyrd to go home, had to summon another army for the fourth time. Of course the mainstay of his army, his huscarles, and I’m imagining that he now numbered his predecessor’s men amongst those of his own, were still assembled for this latest threat. Most likely he would have sent on some of his huscarles to call up the men who hadn’t been at Stamford Bridge. These counties they were pulled from, stretched from East Anglia and across to Hampshire and would most likely have joined with Harold on his way down to London. On the way there, he and a few of his companions took a detour to Waltham. Here is an illuminating account of what Harold did there, and what happened, according to the Waltham Chronicle, showing how medieval churchmen viewed life through superstitious eyes:


Having arrived in Waltham, Harold went straight into the church, and placed gifts and the relics he had taken with him on his journey north, on the altar. He prostrated himself in front of the altar and prayed that if God was to grant him victory, he would release more land to the church.  According to the sacristan, Thurkill, who was putting away the gifts the king had brought in, the head of the Christ on the crucifix, bowed, as if in sorrow, a portent of what was to come. The king did not see it, as he was still prostrate on the floor. This worried the canons and two of their seniors, Osgood Cnoppe and Aethelric Childemaister, were dispatched to accompany the king’s retinue to learn of the outcome of the battle. They were charged with bringing back the body of Harold, should the omen proove to be damming.

Image of the king on Waltham Abbey

So what happened in York whilst all this was going on? Where were Edwin and Morcar and their armies? Why were they not accompanying Harold south? One of the things that Harold had done before he moved south was to appoint Marleswein of Lincoln as sheriff of York. Perhaps this was to support Morcar, who was after all, only young and inexperienced, well, perhaps a bit more experienced, now. The Battle of Gate Fulford had also damaged his and Edwin’s military forces quite badly, and they would have needed time to recover and recoup their losses in terms of military power. The boys may also have been injured themselves, and needed time to repair their wounds, but whatever the cause, it seemed that they would follow when they had readied themselves, for they were in London soon after the Battle of Hastings. The sons of Alfgar needed Harold to win, they had a lot riding on Harold, their king, for he was their brother-in-law, married to their sister Aldith. Some said that there was animosity between the Mercian boys and Harold, for the way the Godwinsons had treated their father, however, all that was now water under the bridge with Harold’s marriage to their sister, and she was now heavily pregnant with the king’s child.

Aldith – an interpretation

The Waltham Chronicle also tells us that Harold was impetuous, ignoring the advice of those around him who encouraged him to wait until the whole fyrd was gathered. He was said to have been over confident, trusting too much in his own courage, believing that the invaders were like the Norwegians, unprepared and weak, but he wanted to destroy them before William’s reinforcements could join him from Normandy.

William and Harold
William and Harold as they once were, friends.

Harold caught up with the rest of his army in London around about the 8th of October. He stayed there until the 11th. During Harold’s march south, William took the opportunity of his absence to cause havoc, raiding homesteads that were Harold’s family lands, mainly because he wanted more supplies. This is normal when an army goes on campaign, they live off the land which means taking food, livestock and provisions from the inhabitants. But with this kind of acquisition of supplies, there usually comes violence and their homes would have been fired to the ground, should they have tried to resist the Normans. Quite probably William knew these were Harold’s lands, and that he wanted to goad him into coming to meet him in battle, and this may have some truth, but it was normal practice, nonetheless.

During Harold’s stay in London, various messages were going back and forth. There are various versions of these and written by various writers, some contemporary and some not. But, as Howarth (1977) states, they all added up to the same thing. Give me back my crown and Get off of my land! And each man claimed that they believed that they had the right of it. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, written by Bishop Guy of Amiens and thought to be the earliest account of the events around the Battle of Hastings, seems to know a lot of information about what Harold had said, how he said it and what he looked like when he said it! Due to the fact that it would have been impossible for the Bishop to have been in Harold’s presence when he reports what he has said and the descriptions of how it all went, it seems unlikely that we can put our faith in what he describes as words coming out of Harold’s mouth, and perhaps too, the duke, but is more likely to be true for William than for Harold.

The Carmen tells us  that a chaplain was sent with a message for William, which went like this, “King Harold recalls that King Edward first appointed you as his heir, and he recalls that he, himself, was sent to Normandy to assure you of the succession. But he also knows that the same king, his lord, bestowed upon him the kingdom of England when he was dying. Ever since the time that the blessed Augustine came to these shores, it has been the unbroken custom of the English to treat a deathbed request as inviolable. With justice, he bids you go back to your country with your followers. Otherwise, he will break the pact of friendship he made with you in Normandy. And he leaves the choice to you.”

The Normans burning Sussex villages

The Carmen goes on to tell us that the reply that William’s chaplain sends back on his behalf repeats the same claim he made before. William’s hereditary right given to him by Edward, and Harold’s oath. He states, “I am ready to submit my case against Harold’s for judgement either by Norman law or English law, whichever he choose.”  Then if Harold was to refuse, he offered trial by single combat between the two of them.

We have to remember that the Carmen is a romantic piece of literature, written as poetry. And is essentially a ‘song’ hence the name ‘Carmen’. It is however, ludicrous to think that the ruler of a kingdom could be decided by single combat. That was not the way things were done. Once the parleying was over, then came the battle. And that was what Harold, apparently, had decided. If William was not going to go peaceably, Harold  would destroy him in battle. This was what William had wanted Harold to do, all along.

William the Conqueror

Primary Sources

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Carmen de Hastingae Proelio 


Gravett C  (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publsihing Ltd, Oxford.

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 Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster.

Walker I. W. (1997) Harold The LAst Anglo-Saxon King Sutton Publishing, Stroud.

Guest Post: Bishops, Banners and Bastards by Robert Bayliss

“…the gift of a banner as a pledge of the support of St. Peter whereby he might the more confidently and safely attack his enemy.”
The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English. – William of Poiters
“The Pope weighed the arguments on both sides, and then sent a banner to William as an earnest of his kingdom.”
Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury


Duke William raises his helmet to rally his troops. Beside him, Eustace of Bologne carries the Papal banner  *Source Bayeux tapestry

When Duke William landed at Pevensey in September 1066 on his campaign to dethrone Harold and conquer England, he unfurled his banners which included the Gonfalon, the battle standard of the Pope. Usually these were only issued on campaigns against non-Christian states or those who rebelled against papal authority. Yet here was a Christian Duke launching, what in effect was, a crusade against another Christian state; a Christian state that had been subject to the papacy for a century and a half. The subjugation of a well-established Christian nation could now be undertaken and those who indulged in the excesses of war would be absolved of their sins. And excesses there would be, such as the pillaging around Pevensey to draw Harold to battle and later the near genocidal Harrying of the North in the winter of 1069-70. The gift of the Gonfalon meant that other Christian kings would risk excommunication if they came to Harold’s aid or took advantage of William’s absence from his own lands. How could such a thing come to pass?

The Normans were descended from land hungry Northmen, who under their war chief Rollo, settled in north west France in an area that would bear their name – Normandy. Rollo himself had earned a reputation as a viking raiding Ireland and Scotland. He appears not to have raided England to any great extent, which isn’t surprising as Alfred the Great had recently forced Guthrum to sue for peace and was overseeing an Anglo-Saxon revival of fortunes. Heading south, Rollo’s longships raided deep into Frankia navigating along the river Seine. In 876 Rollo captured Rouen and nine years later besieged Paris itself. It was clear that Rollo and his men meant to stay and in 911 a formal treaty, with Rollo pledging fealty to Charles III of France, created the Duchy of Normandy.


Rollo of Normandy – Falaise town square. * Source Wikipedia

The Normans adopted the language of the Carolingian Franks and they converted to Christianity. If anyone expected their new found faith to curb their warlike tendencies they would be disappointed, especially as they readily took to the Carolingian concept of heavy cavalry and made it their own. However, being subjects of the French king meant Norman expansion in France could only go so far and only the eldest son inherited lands and titles. Perhaps a second son could find a position in the church but where was the glory for a people who had won their lands by the sword? These were a people whose society was founded on martial prowess, but perhaps an outlet could be found to marry this with their newfound piety?

From 999 AD a steady stream of Normans found their way to southern Italy. Southern Italy had been settled by the Lombards, a Germanic people in the C8th – C9th. They found themselves sandwiched as a buffer state between the Carolingian Empire to the north and the Byzantine Empire to the south in Apulia – the heel – and Calabria – the toe of Italy. The Lombards had briefly had a unified Duchy but this had disintegrated into smaller duchies and principalities. As the Byzantine Empire waned the Saracens had entered the fray and carved out an Emirate in Sicily.

Legend has it that a group of Norman knights returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land assisted the Lombards of Salerno in repulsing Saracen raiders. Not one to miss an opportunity more Normans arrived to find employment as mercenaries, especially when the Lombards, encouraged by the Pope, revolted against their Byzantine overlords. However the Normans were wily and could fight for both sides, all the time their numbers swelled and Norman held fiefdoms were carved from the chaos.

*Source – Wikipedia

What originally was a Lombard revolt increasingly became Norman and more towns fell to them. They were not averse to campaigning as their Viking forebears had – raiding, burning farms and villages, starving towns of supplies to encourage their surrender. Their power and influence grew steadily as they crept from the toe and up the boot of Italy.

To the Lombards the Normans had changed from servants to oppressors and further revolts broke out, this time against Norman rule. The Lombards beseeched aid from the Papacy, who looked on in alarm at the turn of events. So it was that in 1053 Pope Leo IX, a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany led a combined Papal and Imperial force to nip Norman expansion in the bud. The campaign was an utter failure and Leo was soundly defeated and captured at Civitae. Pope Leo was treated well but was reduced to passive resistance only, any hope that the Holy Roman Empire would send further aid to his cause slowly dissipated. This situation continued with two further popes who were antagonistic to the Norman presence; however political reality took hold with the ascension of the reformist Pope Nicholas II. The Papacy sought independence from the Holy Roman Empire for the appointment of the pontiff (this would now be the decision of Cardinals) and also the tardiness in coming to the aid of the Pope had shown the Empire as an unreliable ally. The Normans were nearby, had assisted in the expulsion of the Byzantines and crucially had shown themselves as a strong regional power; despite their feudal form of government and their multiple fiefdoms, they quickly united when threatened. Nicholas II wished to expel the Saracens in Sicily and bring the island back into Christendom; the land hungry Normans were an obvious choice for such a task. The Treaty of Melfi in 1059 cemented the position of the Normans in Southern Italy. They had become the Pope’s sword arm.

*Norman mercenaries in Muslim Scicily – by Angus McBride 

Nicholas II passed in 1061 and Alexander II, a student of the celebrated Lanfranc of Bec, was elected pope according to the reforms introduced by his predecessor. In opposition the Emperor in Germany chose Honorius II who with Lombard troops defeated the forces of Alexander. An armed standoff ensued between the Pope and the Antipope which only ceased in 1064 when Honorius II withdrew from Rome, although he never renounced his claim to St. Peter’s throne.

Back in Normandy, who should be Duke William’s trusted advisor but Abbot Lanfranc of St. Etienne in Caen; the same Lanfranc who had schooled the young Alexander at Bec.

Captain Lanfranc – *Source Oxford Bodleian Library

Initially the relationship between both men had been fraught. William’s marriage to Matilda of Flanders in 1053 was deemed non-Canonical; it is unclear why, perhaps due to issues of consanguinity or even affinity. William’s uncle, Duke Richard III, had been married to Adela of France, Matilda’s mother. The marriage had been brief as Richard died the same year and they had no issue, Adela married Baldwin V of Flanders the next year. Whatever the reason, Lanfranc refused to support the marriage and the relationship between William and Lanfranc grew so dire that the Abbot was on the point of being exiled from Normandy. The two men reached a rapprochement at the eleventh hour and Lanfranc successfully gained Papal approval for the marriage in 1059. Lanfranc had William’s gratitude and the Abbot’s influence grew politically as well as in the spiritually.

Upon hearing the news of the crowning of Harold II on the death of Edward the Confessor in early 1066, William wasted no time. Whether Edward had promised him the English crown or Harold had sworn to uphold his claim we won’t discuss here. While embassies were sought with powers around the North Sea to isolate England, Lanfranc and William drew up a legal case for invasion to present to Alexander II.

It was argued that Harold was an usurper, however William’s claim could be described as somewhat shaky being as it was merely built upon a promise and an oath. There had never been papal involvement in the English succession previously, as this was down to the Witan, besides English law did not look favourably upon a bastard’s claim to the crown.

William and Lanfranc’s envoy to the pope argued that the English church was in a poor state and badly in need of reform. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury had been excommunicated for his pluralism in holding the bishoprics of Winchester and Canterbury. However England was renowned for possessing a devout ecclesiastical body that held around 20% of landed wealth. Indeed a papal legate in 1062 found no problems with the church and even Stigand had not been challenged; indeed he held the archbishopric until 1070 when he was finally arrested and unseated in favour of Lanfranc (who else?!), to die two years later in captivity.

Archbishop Stigand – *Source The Bayeux Tapestry

None of this seems to warrant the issuing of a Gonfalon against a nation which had long recognised the spiritual authority of the Papacy. Unfortunately for Harold events long ago and far away, beyond his influence, conspired against him. The Pope, an ex-student of William’s chief advisor, was threatened by the Holy Roman Empire and their attempts to depose him in favour of their candidate, while the local Italian populaces were in a near state of permanent rebellion, resentful of the growing Norman presence in southern Italy. Pope Alexander II was both dependent on, and a hostage to, Norman power. Any symbol of approval granted to Normans in their homeland would be looked upon favourably by Normans in the Pope’s backyard.


The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English. – William of Poiters

Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury

The Godwins – Frank Barlow 2002

The Normans in the South – John Julius Norwich 1967


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