Christmas 1065: A Brother’s Betrayal, A King Lays Dying and a New King is Chosen.


– I am proud to add my contribution to this year’s wonderful Christmas Blog Hop Event from the Historical Writers Forum. See more participants future and past below –

King Edward, later coined as The Confessor king,  and although he does achieve a canonization, he is awarded the nomenclature ‘Confessor’ rather than a sainthood, more due to his supposed piety rather than any martyrdom. For Edward, the early ‘winter’ months that we would now refer to as autumn or fall, was a time for hunting, eating well, and pursuing more leisurely sports rather than the serious business of running a kingdom, time off which he deserved as a hardworking monarch. After all, he had spent all year dealing with various administration issues and the petty squabbles of the lesser nobles in his kingdom even sometimes having to endure a conflict or two along the Welsh borders. But in September of the year 1065, the king who’d  hitherto reigned for twenty three years, was beset by a northern rebellion, resulting in the exile of Tostig Godwinson, reputed to be the king’s favourite. It would be important to note that Tostig was also the queen’s favourite brother, she being a Godwin also, with many siblings.

King Edward's funeral

It was Tostig’s brother, Harold Godwinson who had forced Edward’s hand in exiling his beloved champion. Harold had been sent on king’s orders to deal with the northern rebels. These men had never really wanted a southerner as Earl for their realm of Northumbria, and Tostig had met much opposition in his ten years as their lord, often complaining and revolting at his harsh line in taxes and his dealings with them, but now the excrement had really hit the fan and they wanted him out and instead were demanding as their new earl, Morcar, the son of the late Alfgar of Mercia. Morcar, just a young teenager at the time, would be an easier piece of clay to mold to their ways than Tostig had been. Edwin, Morcar’s  older brother, the Earl of Mercia, also young and pliable, was enlisted to support his brother’s cause. They marched south, causing havoc in their wake and here is where Harold played his hand,  in getting rid of his brother, Tostig. Not willing to see the kingdom ripped asunder on behalf of his brother, Harold  chose the Mercian brothers cause instead of Tostig, after a scene where he accuses his brother of betrayal, leaves the kingdom, an outcast.

Harold and Tostig fighting at Edward’s court when they were boys

Edward was devastated. He was shattered by his counsellors’ refusal to use arms to restore Tostig to his office.  Harold’s refusal to help Tostig must have felt like perfidy, though to Harold, it would have been the sensible thing to do. To encourage a civil war at such a time when Harald Hardraada was looking to expand his Norwegian empire by adding England to it would have been pure folly. The loss of Tostig, seems to have broken Edward and,  as expounded by the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he ‘became so ill, his mind was affected until his death’.  With Tostig’s outlawing, Edward was to suffer the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death.


There must have been a strange tinge of unease and trepidation to the Christmas preparations of those following weeks that Edward took to his sick bed. Up until the Tostig episode, Edward, though aged, had been quite robust and still able to go hunting in his favourite hunting ground, the Forest of Dean. Harold had been building a hunting lodge in Archenfield, the land he had conquered from Gruffudd as a result of  his and Tostig’s joint incursion into Wales two years before. It was said that Harold had been intending to gift the hunting lodge to the king, therefore Edward had at that time, been of stout heart and mind. But an unfortunate incident was to foil Harold’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the king: in August, 1065, Welsh raiders burned the lodge to the ground and slaughtered all the workers there.

There are a number of theories that we could speculate upon as to what might have influenced Harold in his decision making when he mediated for the king with the Mercian brothers, one that Harold might have believed that Tostig, jealous of Harold, had paid the Welsh to burn the lodge. Harold, jealous of his brother in return, might have felt that he needed to usurp his brother as king’s favourite and wanted to gift the king this lodge in order to do so. Therefore when a month later the northern rebellion occurred, Harold might have seen an opportunity for revenge and thereby backed the earls instead of Tostig, getting rid of a possible obstacle in Edward’s favour. This is all speculation of course. The Godwin brothers were renown for squabbling. Perhaps Harold felt he deserved better, perhaps the evidence is just circumstantial. Who knows. But it is interesting none the less. I must say that Harold’s refusal to back Tostig, his own brother, is very telling and you may make of it what you will.


Tostig’s removal from the kingdom, coincided with the start of Edward’s illness which seems to have been the trigger. The king began to worsen as the following weeks went by. As Christmas approached, it must have been clear that Edward was not going to recover from such a serious illness. He was on his way out and not coming back. And something had to be done.

One would hardly imagine that a kingdom’s administration would have been totally unprepared for such an event such as the king’s demise. With possible war on the horizon, it would barely seem rational that plans for the aftermath of Edward’s passing had not been made. The speed with which Harold was crowned Edward’s successor was obviously a fait accompli. So, whilst Edward lay sick in his bed in those weeks after Tostig’s departure, the wise men of the kingdom, the witan, must have come up with a plan. Most likely this would also have included the queen, who, according to Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi, was said to have loved Tostig and hated Harold. Because of the nature of Tostig’s downfall and Harold’s perceived refusal to help him, she probably did hold a grudge against him and may not have been happy with the decision to enthrone him,  but he was her best chance of surviving as an influential player in this Anglo-Saxon Game of Thrones. She would have been able to remember what had happened to her predecessor, Emma of Normandy, whose power greatly diminished when her second husband died.


During this time, Harold would have been garnering support amongst the most significant members of the nobility. With Earls Leofric, and  Ælfgar now passed, it was now up to Harold to curry favour with Ælfgar’s teenage sons, Edwin and Morcar. To some extent he’d already done so by support in Morcar’s appointment to Northumbria. It seems likely that they must have been in some sort of negotiation with Harold regarding a marriage alliance with their sister, Aldith, the widow of the deposed Welsh King, Gruffudd. This meant Harold would have had to put aside his long time wife Edith Swanneck. One must wonder how this felt for both of them. It does appear though, that perhaps they did continue their relationship, as the story goes that Edith was his go to when he stopped in Waltham on his way back to London from Stamford Bridge.

How the young earls  felt about Harold, whose clan was often at odds with their own, we cannot know, but they might recall that Harold’s negotiations during the Welsh problems had always led to their father being reinstated and back in power. I suspect that if Edward had had his way, Ælfgar wouldn’t have been. Harold’s main gripe seems to have been against Gruffudd, and once Ælfgar was dead, he and Tostig piled into Wales and devastated it from south to north and probably encouraged the ousting and execution of Gruffudd by his own men! Of course that was in the good old days when they were friends – Harold and Tostig that is.


Its quite likely that Morcar and Edwin would have supported Harold in his quest for the kingship that Christmas, and perhaps thrown in their sister, Aldith, as part of the deal. Of course, all the other earls were Godwins too – Leofwine and Gyrth – who were Harold’s younger brothers after Tostig. There can be no doubt who they would have supported. But as an aside, we must not forget young Waltheof, a fledgling earl, whose father had been Siward the Strong, Earl of Northumbria before Tostig was appointed.  He had been too young to take up his father’s mantle in Northumbria when the old man left this world. Now he was around fifteen, sixteen, and had been given some responsibility as Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, perhaps in preparation for higher status. Amongst the other members of the witan would have been archbishops Stigand and Ealdred, both Godwin supporters, not to mention the leading bishops and abbots, and abbesses also, and other leading wealthy and powerful noblemen from the shires up and down the kingdom. With the witan’s seal on the table, all Harold really needed now as a stamp of approval was for Edward to express his consent, something that would be needed when the time came to argue the case against William.


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,  but he had never shown signs of serious weakness of health issues unto then, and to know that their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all for although he’d been in ill health since that fateful day in October when Tostig was exiled, it would have taken some time for the news to reach the length and breadth of England before Christmas.

At first, Edward had seemed to recover from the initial onset of illness but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow he managed to attend the Christmas Day service, attending the celebrations though quite unwell. 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.

One might have thought that the Aetheling Edgar would have been a contender, but he seems to have been out of sight and mind, not listed as being at court that Christmas. He may have been finishing his education elsewhere, perhaps in Winchester in the household of the queen in her dower lands. It is not known, but he might have been put forward at the witanemegot, but it was hardly likely that he would have won their vote, for he was only young, somewhere between twelve and fourteen years old. Harold could have acted as regent , much in the way he’d acted as Edward’s first minister. If it was considered, it was obviously not the outcome anyone wanted. England’s powers that were, wanted a strong, experienced man and not an untried boy in charge, regardless of who was pulling the strings. Harold may have felt he deserved the crown, after his loyalty and hard work to attain precedence over all others during his career. To save England from what was coming, the crown may have been the deal.

It seems sad now to think that poor Edward was approaching his death right when he needed to stay alive to see his precious church of St Peter – Westminster Abbey – at last consecrated. The church had been his life’s work. His darling. His precious. And now there he was – dying. They say that when people are at the end of their lives, they somehow find the strength to stay for that special arrival, or occasion. My own father had been more-or-less unconscious all week until my brother flew in from Australia to see him and then he perked up for a day before sadly taking his leave from us the next day. This could be said of Edward, who managed to find the strength to see Christmas through in his new Romanesque-style church but not the final consecrated on the 28th December. He certainly must have struggled those last days, for evidently he was unable to partake much of his food, and after Christmas day, he took to his bed and never arose again. By the time the twelve days of Christmas was over, he was gone from this world and the Kingdom of England had a new king, one not chosen because he had the blood of Wessex, but because he was the most competent man at the time.


6th Dec Jen Black a Viking Christmas

8th Dec Derek Birks: The Christmas Lord of Misrule

9th Dec Jennifer C. Wilxon: A Very Kindred Christmas

11th Dec Janet Wertman: Christmas at the Tudor Court

12 Dec  Margaret Skea: Britain’s Little Ice Age

13th Dec Sue Barnard: A Light in the Darkness

14th Dec Cathie Dunn: Charlemagne – A Political Christmas

15th Dec Lynn Bryant: Colby Fair: A Manx Christmas

16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson: The Giving of Gifts

17th Dec Nicky Moxey: Christmas Giving in 1181

18th Dec Nancy Jardine: AD 210 25TH December Worship

19th Dec Wendy Dunn: Christmas at the Tudor Court – Excerpt from A Light in the Labyrinth

20th Dec Judith Arnopp: A Tudor Christmas

21st Dec Tim Hodkinson: A Viking Christmas

22nd   Vanessa Couchman: The Unofficial Truce of Christmas 2014 

23rd Christine Hancock: A Meeting in the Snow

24th Paula Lofting

25th Alex Marchant


Chapter Twelve: The Battle: 1) The Lines Are Drawn


Harold’s men lined up on the ridge at Caldbeck Hill – Photo c/o

Harold was marshalling his men as the Norman army and their allies, marched along the road from Hastings, into the valley that was slung between Telham and Caldbeck Hills. Singing their war songs, and shouting  ‘Dex Aie!’ – God aid us  – and ‘Normandy!’

Watching them whilst on the ridge facing them, Harold’s mob start banging their weapons against their shields and shouting for ‘Godwinson!’ and ‘Oli crosse!’ or ‘Gotte  mite!’ essentially meaning, God is on our side! And of course, the famous ‘Ut! Ut! Ut!’ Imagine the noise these thousands of men would have made, a cacophony of languages and chants. It would not have been unlike a football match here in the modern world, except the chanters were the players and not the observers in this game of death.

The ridge was reportedly 800 yards long, the flanks of which were protected by sharp declines and it cut right across the road back to Hastings. At its highest point it rose to about 150ft, and 60ft above the lowest point of the marshy valley. Behind the shieldwall, lay the road back to London and Lewes, on the top of the hill, there was open heathland big enough to camp on overnight. Nearby was the edge of the forest, where after the battle, survivors would run, or crawl, when they realised they had lost the battle. For now, though, they were not thinking of dying, or losing, well, maybe some were, but the confident among them wanted to get stuck into the enemy, thinking only of driving them back into the sea to whence they came. They were fighting for their freedom, the right to govern themselves as their customs dictated over years of building their country from the days when the first Germanic tribes climbed over the strakes of their longships and stepped onto Britannia’s soil.


The Normans, on the other hand, were fighting for what they believed in too, except their beliefs were governed by the desire of their leader, who had promised them that he had God on their side, that he, William of Normandy, was the true King of England. He’d also promised them land, riches and status, to encourage them to come with him. They were fighting for their new lives, land where they had none back in France, and greater prospects. And they were doing this at the expense of their English counterparts.


You can imagine the speeches that each war leader gave their troops, though it must have been difficult to relay a speech to that amount of men without the technology of today, still, no doubt there were speeches and the differences within them would have been to do with the above.

Harold’s men must have been 8-10 men deep and a thousand men across. By these times, the 11th century, that would have been a large army. And there would still be more men Harold could call on, if only he could contain William, at the very least, if not, destroy him completely. His plan must have been to maintain the shieldwall on the ridge until new troops arrived, and all his troops should have known what the plan was. Guy of Amiens, in his Roman de Rou, informs us that many of Harold’s troops deserted him because of the excommunication. Florence of Worcester confirms this but gives a different reason, they left because there was no room on the ridge, the battlefield was full. Howarth (1977) believes that those who went away were local peasants who had turned up to support their masters, perhaps. It seems unlikely that professional warriors would have left their comrades to it, even if there was no more room on the ridge, they would have stayed in reserve, and filled in the gaps when men were wounded or injured.

William had marched at dawn. For an army  of that size to get itself up and going, it must have taken a lot longer than initially thought. When the head of William’s army came over the slope of Telham Hill, the rear was only getting started 6 miles away. William halted in sight of the English army who were already lining up on the ridge. Kinights stopped to put on their mail hauberks. William, put his mail on back to front! Just the sort of thing I do on a daily basis with my clothes – not mail – I might add. But once again, he laughs at the bad omen and his men help him to sort himself out.

William deploys his army to the left and right as the English watch on. There is about 200 yards between them. Battle lines draw up and it begins.

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

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



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.