1066 The Year of the Conquest: Chapter One

 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 this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true; he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.

King Edmund Ironside

At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that Harold had been a ‘guest’ at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.

Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.

 Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.

Harold swearing an oath on Holy relics to William of Normandy
 The Vita Ædwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow, he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.

In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

The king and his witan

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

The king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled halfway up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. Then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping, and he spoke words of comfort to her, and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

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

Edward the Confessor’s deathbed scenario

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.

The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned.

Harold is crowned

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

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

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

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part VII

Wecome to the concluding part of Ælfgyva: The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Imagine someone wants to tell you some gossip about your neighbour Joe Bloggs, something quite scandalous and outrageous. Imagine that person has already heard it from someone else and perhaps that person has heard it from some other person. Imagine that somewhere along the line, facts have become distorted or left out. Perhaps someone has mistaken Joe for a different Joe – or for a John, who looked a lot like a Joe? Imagine that by the time the rumour reaches you, the whole episode has been scrambled into something  slightly different, but with a similar concept? Perhaps the story is entirely the same, but the it is the identities of those involved that are morphed. Well, this is what I believe has happened in the Bayeux Tapestry with the Aelfgyva tale.

After studying the tapestry, the possible candidates and the possible links to the story quite thoroughly, I can come up with no other explanation other than it is a case of mistaken identity where a certain lady’s story has been wrongly attributed to another. One can imagine it would not have been that difficult to mistake one person for another when there were so many women with the same name around at the same time. Especially if you were a Norman, hearing scandalous tales passed from one person to another like a Chinese whisper.

So what are the implications of such a suggestion? This is what I believe, could be… what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to convey. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven, but merely a suggestion and an interpretation of what this scene might signify. I am not in any way stating that I have cracked the mystery, or that I have finally found the answer. I am however presenting you with a possibility, having been unable to discover any other indisputable explanation for the woman’s role embroidered into the legend with the hints of scandal that have been attributed to a particular woman of that name.

So, here is the story, as I imagine it:

Harold embarks for Normandy from Bosham

The woman in the scene with the cleric, is Ælfgifu of Northampton, and the priest touching her face is doing so to signify some sort of collaboration with her.  In the scene before, Harold and William are discussing the earl’s reasons for coming to Normandy.  The scene in which Ælfgyva and the priest are portrayed is part of their conversation also. Harold is explaining to William that he has come to negotiate the release of his brother and nephew, hence the man that Harold appears to be almost touching with his finger, is presented with a beard in the English style of facial fashion, and not the Norman clean-shaven manner, as all the others in the scene are – apart from Harold, of course. It seems quite reasonable to me that this bearded fellow is Wulfnoth, Harold’s brother who was one of the hostages he has come to negotiate the release of. 
But William, overwhelmed by the earl’s presence and its implication for him, understands some other reason for Harold’s visit. He is convinced that Harold has come to declare his fealty to him and assure him that when Edward dies, he will support him as his successor. Why else would he come with such gifts of wonder to offer him? Could William’s mindset have been so focused on the crown of England that he cannot not hear the words Harold is trying to say to him? 
Harold mentions, carefully – very carefully – because Edward, the king, has told him to be so,  that King Edward has declared his great nephew, Edgar, grandson of the courageous Edmund Ironside, as the atheling, which means that the boy is someone who is throne-worthy, therefore a future candidate to the throne. Harold knows that William has never been named atheling, but he is very careful how he presents his case. William listens, shows interest in what the Englishman has to say, after all he is going to need him when Edward dies. Nonetheless, he is undaunted by what Harold is telling him.  He has already dismissed Edgar, having heard the scandal of Edmund Ironsides’ mother Aelfgyva, who it was said, had tricked her husband into believing her sons were his when they were really the sons of a priest and a workman. He laughs at Harold’s suggestion that the Witan should prefer a boy over a man such as him, a boy descended from dubious lineage. Is he not (the duke) a man who has cheated death many times and earned the respect of his enemies?
Harold tries to put him straight about Ælfgyva, desperately trying to make him understand that he is mistaken and that the woman in the scandal he was referring to was not Edmund Ironside’s mother, but Harold Harefoot’s mother, wife of Cnut. Yes, Aethelred’s wife was also called Ælfgifu, but there was no such scandal about her and Edgar’s lineage is indisputably of the true line of Wessex. 
Still William does not listen. He interrupts, rebuffs and insists – all in the best nature and good spirits, of course. Harold is having problems pressing home his point because William has made his mind up. It is a game that only William can win. Harold, William declares, will support him in his quest for the English throne, and consider allying himself closely to him by marrying a daughter of his. William suggests this proposition in such a way that if Harold should refuse, he may inflict great insult upon his most congenial host, who has saved him from the humiliation and torment of being held as the Count of Ponthieu’s prisoner… and in Harold’s mind, he is thinking that if he wants to leave there alive, he will have to play the game that William has already won. Perhaps it is then that Harold realises what a terrible mistake he has made. Why, oh why, did he not listen to his king when he warned him that “no good will come of it”?

William knights Harold

So any attempt that Harold might make to put right the error that William has made in identifying the correct scandal with the incorrect Ælfgifu, is from then on thwarted. Wiliam will change the subject or offer a distraction. He does anything not to talk about the subject again. And by the time he gets home, with only one of the hostages being released, Harold is ridden with anxiety, having been made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he has basically handed the English crown on a plate, to the Norman duke. The first thing he does is seek out his relative, Ælfric, who was once a monk at Canterbury, and in earnest, divulge to him what he has done. It is then that Harold learns that according to canon law, a man who gives oath under severe duress, can later recant without detriment to his soul. With this knowledge, Harold can later go on to forgo the oath he made to William, to take the crown for himself. Which he does, indeed, later in 1066.
Did the artist who designed the tapestry know the secret of the conversation that happened between Harold and William? Were they trying to convey the story that led to the mis identity of Ælfgifu and coerced oathtaking that meant the end of Anglo-Saxon rule? We shall never know, but this is the possibility that I have come to believe. How I wish I had a time machine, so that I could take you back with me to that year, 956 years ago when it all happened. 


*

I believe that this is the basis for the artist’s insertion of the scene with Aelfgyva and the priest. Whether or not my theory is right, the creator wanted to convey to the viewer that this particular scandal had some link to the conversation that William and Harold are having. The small, crude images in the border further enforces the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton’s scandal leaving me with no doubt that they represent the labourer and priest who were supposed to have fathered the children said to be Cnut’s sons. I cannot, although I have tried to, locate any other evidence that would identify a believable rationale for this scandal to have been placed in the tapestry.  
If I were a contemporary of it, I may have been privy to the tittle-tattle and also that perhaps William had wrongly identified the woman and would not have had to use my imagination to work out the innuendo of the illustration. But this is my interpretation. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing I am right, however I do not think this has been a pointless study, for it has identified the woman and shed some light on some other mysteries of the tapestry also. I hope that you all have not been disappointed.                                                 I would love to know what you think.

References

Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066 The Hidden History of The Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial, London.

Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England

Eadmer  Historia Novorium in Anglia 

Harvey Wood H, (2008) The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England, Atlantic Books, Chatham. 

McNulty J.B. (1980) The Lady Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry, Medieval Academy of America, vol 55 (4) pp 659-688.

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part IV

The woman in the Bayeux Tapestry called Ælfgyva has given commentators and historians alike, food for thought for as long as the Bayeux Tapestry has been studied. As we have seen in the earlier chapters, there have been plenty of Ælfgyvas to choose from, but none quite fits the bill as much as Ælfgifu  of Northampton. We have discounted the Queen Emma/Aelfgifu version, and also that Earl Harold had any daughter or sister of that name. I have also set aside the idea that the lady may have been a child of William’s, offered to Harold as a wife in return for an alliance.

Ælfgifu was a purely English name and Ælfgyva, being the Latinised version, was used instead of its English counterpart, as the text on the BT is written in Latin. Although a possibility, it was not likely that such a name would have been given to a Norman woman, especially the daughter of William, whose daughters were called, Adela, Adeliza, Constance, Agatha and Cecilia, and none were given an English name, as far as we know.

Edward Freeman, writing in 1869, suggests that the woman they are discussing was a lady at the duke’s palace, and the idea that a bride for Harold was discussed, shouldn’t necessarily be discounted. However, it seems unlikely that if such a lady was chosen from one of the duke’s daughters, she would have been portrayed with lewd men underneath her image pointing up her dress. One thing to remember, the name Ælfgyva means noble-gift in Anglo-Saxon, and might have been used to refer to a lady of noble birth, in which case her name might not necessarily be Ælfgyva, but a sort of title.

So, the wording on the Tapestry, could actually be meant to be taken as A Priest and a Noble Lady, in which case she could have easily have been anyone at the court of William’s, but, unfortunately, we will never know.

So, why then does Ælfgifu of Northampton seem the likeliest candidate to match the mysterious lady on the Tapestry? What is it about this Ælfgifu that draws me to believe that she is the one?
There are several versions of the scandal which Ælfgifu of Northampton was involved in, but Florence of Worcester tells us an interesting tale of the first wife of Cnut, the said Ælfgifu of Northampton. According to his writings, she was said to have passed off the bastard child of a priest as Cnut’s son, after failing to provide an heir of her own. This child was called Swein.

Later, Worcester states that she passed off another ‘son’, Harold Harefoot, who was a child of a workman, or a cobbler. Interestingly, if we look once again at the image of Ælfgyva and the priest, we see that in the lower border a naked figure of a man with a rather large member, is mimicking the stance and gesture of the priest. There is also another image of a naked workman.  The priest, who touches her face, is either stroking her cheek, or slapping her. The scene is also iconographic, which means it is supposed to be a representation of what perhaps, William and Harold may have been discussing in the previous scene, as I have already said in Part III. 

Unlike the other scenes in the tapestry, this one is not to be viewed as part of the story but more as alluding to some sexual scandal. Interpreting the face fondling/slapping aspect is a bone of contention, however. At first, I favoured the idea that the priest was slapping her but upon further research I came across an intriguing suggestion submitted by J Bard McNulty in the Lady Ælfgyva in The Bayeux Tapestry (1980).

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

So, if we accept that the woman referred to in the tapestry must be Aelfgifu of Northampton, we have to ponder upon why on earth Harold and William would be discussing her at this stage of the story. Aelfgifu would have been long dead at the time of this meeting (around the autumn of 1064). But let us not discount her, for she was, like her counterpart and rival, Emma of Normandy, a formidable woman. Unfortunately for her, she was not as tactful or astute as Emma. 

Cnut had most likely married Ælfgifu in the more-danico fashion, commonly known as a handfasting, rather than a marriage that is recognised by the church. We believe this, as he was later able to marry Emma, despite already being tied to Ælfgifu. A handfasted wife was, by law, legitimate, as were any children she had. However, it was customary in those times to wed traditionally for love, or for an alliance that would expediate a man’s cause, then later, marry for political reasons as Harold Godwinson did with Aldith of Mercia, to gain the support of her brothers. Cnut needed support in his early days as ruler, and had married Ælfgifu to claim the loyalty of her father’s supporters whom were opposed to Æthelred; the king had killed her father and blinded her brother. 
Cnut must have initially valued Ælfgifu and her children by him, for he sent her and her eldest son, Swein, to rule Norway as his representatives, and as Swein was a mere child at the time, Ælfgigu was to act as regent. But she was unpopular with the Norwegians, her rule being ruthless and harsh, so, after some years, she and Swein were driven out of Norway, and Magnus the Good, replaced Swein as King of Norway. It would be interesting to know if Cnut’s feelings toward Ælfgifu would have changed after she lost Norway for him.              

Cnut

Eventually, Magnus the Good would make a treaty with Cnut’s son by Emma, Harthacnut, and it was this treaty that Tostig may have used to persuade Harald Hardrada to lay claim to the English throne in 1066. Harthacnut and Magnus of Norway were said to have made an oath to each other that should one of them die, the other would inherit all the other’s kingdoms, should the deceased die without issue. Although Magnus claimed his right to England, he never pursued it beyond a threat after Harthacnut died.  
McNulty’s theory concerning this scene, centres around what the two men (Harold and William) might be discussing. William broaches the subject of the English succession with Harold, and they are conferring about the claimants to the throne, one of which was Harald Hardrada. Harold reassures William that he has nothing to worry about, because of the scandal of the sons of Cnut that weren’t really the sons of Cnut.
Sounds plausible? Nope, no, and nada. Confusing? Definitely. 
What had Ælfgifu’s indiscretion got to do with Hardrada’s claim to the throne? After all, she was not mother to Harthacnut who had made the oath with Magnus, and Emma of Normandy, who was the mother of Harthacnut, was not the Ælfgifu depicted in the scandal with the priest and the workman. What a great intrigue this is turning out to be. Just when I think I am there, another ‘but’ pops up! 
And in the immortal words of Sr Walter Scott: 

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive

Stay tuned for the next part of the intrigue, PART FIVE

My Favourite Historical Figure: Harold Godwinson

Blogtober has been a lot of fun for us at @Histwriters and I’ve met a lot of amazing new characters along the way. It wasn’t hard for me to choose my favourite character for he is at the centre of the saga I am writing, the Sons of the Wolf series.

Most of us know Harold Godwinson as being the chap who usurped the English throne, which should rightfully have gone to William the Conqueror, right? And that he was killed by an arrow that pierced his eye and then hacked down as he was dying? Well, he probably deserved it for stealing another man’s crown, didn’t he? Not only was he a usurper, but he was also a womaniser, a breaker of oaths, betrayer of brothers, and an avaricious, greedy man, who amassed his wealth through deceit. We’re told that he and his troops spent the night before battle carousing and drinking so loudly they heard it in the Norman camp all the way in Hastings! No wonder they lost. So just why am I a Haroldite? What qualities make me ignore all the negative facts about him and put him forward for my favourite character in history?

I am about to tell you.

Many people still buy into the myth that Harold was felled by the arrow in the eye, however I am not one of them. Unfortunately, we have no written account from anyone who was actually present at the battle, and even if they were, how much of the battle would they have been able to see. If we could have had several eyewitness accounts, we might have been able to put them together. As it is, we don’t, and therefore we can only rely on what we have in terms of what was considered contemporary or near contemporary. Nonetheless we can objectively make a study of the primary sources and the Bayeux Tapestry, and then subjectively piece together what we think really happened as best we can. The Bayeux Tapestry is the main contemporary source that appears to portray the arrow in the eye story but written sources tell a different story and I believe that the death of Harold, which more-or-less ended the battle, was far more gruesome than a mere arrow in the eye. Lets taken an overview of Harold’s life.

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

Harold was born, circa 1022, to parents Gytha Thorkelsdóttir and Godwin son of Wulfnoth. His mother (aforementioned) was of noble Danish blood and Godwin, his father, was the son of a Sussex thegn whose lineage some say might have descended from the Royal House of Cerdic. He was the second eldest of a vast brood of 6 brothers and 2 sisters, one of whom became Queen of England when she married Edward the Confessor. There was also a grandson, Hakon, said to have been the son of Swegn. Hakon plays only a small part in the tale of the Godwinson’s downfall, along with the only son to survive the destruction of his family, Wulfnoth.

Harold’s early career is not known until, like his brother Swegn, he was invested with an earldom. Swegn drew the short straw because he ended up in charge of the troublesome Welsh border lands while Harold got East Anglia which covered a swathe of lands from Norfolk southwards to Essex. Harold went on to command a fleet of ships for King Edward, and was engaged in some conflicts with foreign pirates who were using European coastal regions to launch their raids. Harold would also have been the king’s representative in his earldom, doling out the king’s law and justice in the shire courts of his jurisdiction. He would collect revenue, oversee transfers of land, witness charters, and attend the king on a regular basis.

Harold with William in Normandy

It seems that around this time, he met the rich heiress, Edith Swanneck – her name was actually Eadgifu the Fair, and Edith Swanneck was a misspelling in a later chronicle. She and Harold probably married in an equivalent to a civil ceremony, known as a more danico, or handfasting. She brought Harold much wealth, land, and power and he was also gifted land by those wanting to curry favour with their earl. Land and wealth equalled power in Medieval times and Harold was no different to any other ambitious man wanting to improve his standing in life.

What was life like amongst such a huge brood of boys like back then? One can imagine the household was probably very boisterous and fraught at times. Godwin, their father would have had to have been a strong disciplinarian when at home to keep some sort of order in the household. I suspect poor Gytha was at home managing the family and household on her own quite a lot with Godwin’s responsibilities as Earl of Wessex. They may have employed a strict childemaester, because we know that Godwin and Gytha educated their children; Harold was known to be a keen reader and he and Tostig were referred to as ‘intelligent’ in the Edwardi Vita.

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

There are anecdotes about the family, though perhaps not from a reliable source, and Tostig and Harold were once chastised as boys, for fighting at the dinner table in front of the king. Tostig was said to have grabbed Harold by the hair. Ouch! Later, Harold was to find it difficult to support Swegn when he was in trouble with the king for numerous offences, including carrying off and deflowering an Abbess, and the murder of his cousin, Beorn. Harold retrieved Beorn’s body from where it had been dumped at sea and had him properly buried. Harold was not able to forgive Swegn and called for Swegn’s exile. Godwin disagreed and begged the king for mercy for his eldest, even though Swegn denied he was his father, claiming to be Cnut’s son. Godwin obviously thought the sun shone out of Swegn’s backside and I wonder how Harold felt about that! Swegn eventually died during a pilgrimage in Constantinople.

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

These insights (if accurate) into the family dynamics make them an interesting bunch, their issues so like today’s. If Swegn, the black-sheep-of-the-family with narcissistic anti-social traits, was alive today, he’d probably have been on drugs, fathered several illegitimate kids, been in prison for domestic violence, and in numerous rehabs before overdosing to death on smack.

Tostig would probably have been the jealous, resentful, secretive one, who reckoned his problems had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Harold. He would have seen Harold as his enemy, and no amount of persuading him otherwise would have shifted him from that view in 1065 when Harold’s failure to support him against the Northerners, was seen as betrayal. He probably felt he’d long lived in Harold’s shadow, despite being his sister’s apparent favourite. Towards the end of his life, he must have despised his brother, and I can’t help but wonder what they had fought about, if true, that day at court when they were younger.

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

We know very little of Gyrth and Leofwin, though the Vita suggests they were considerably younger. There is evidence that Harold and Leofwin may have been close, as they were in Ireland together when the family were exiled in 1051/2. Godwin, Gytha, Tostig, and Gyrth fled to Flanders whilst Harold and Leofwin went to Ireland to drum up support from the Irish king. Later on, Gyrth apparently offered to lead the troops into battle at Hastings, so that Harold could wait in London for the rest of his army, which suggests that along with their differences there was also great loyalty.

Godwin must have been a huge influence on his sons, especially Harold, who stepped into Swegn’s shoes when he died in 1052, and then succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex. Godwin was a formidable administrator who had served six kings. He was loyal to Edmund Ironside, and after his death, joined Cnut’s service. Godwin had little choice but to accept the new king, as there was no real English contender. Cnut favoured Godwin over men like Streona who had switched sides and betrayed Edmund at the battle of Assandun, suggesting that Cnut valued loyalty

Cnut has Eadric beheaded

Godwin was not as loyal to the kings who followed Cnut and Edmund, his allegiance wavering between Cnut’s two sons, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot. During Harefoot’s reign, Godwin handed over Prince Alfred, Edward the Confessor’s brother, to Harefoot’s henchmen who had him blinded. Godwin swore an oath that he did not cause his death, but when Edward the Confessor burst onto the scene in 1042 as king, Godwin for the first time, found himself at odds with a reigning monarch and the death of Alfred seems to have been an important factor in Edward’s dislike for Godwin.

In 1051, Godwin rebelled against King Edward when the monarch, his father-in-law, demanded that he punish the men of Dover for their not so friendly behaviour towards Edward’s brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne and his French retinue on their way home after a visit to the king. Godwin was not about to harm his own people by burning their homes and was prepared to risk the wrath of the king for their sakes. Because of this, the whole family was sent into exile. In the summer of 1052, Godwin returned to England, reunited with his sons and took back his lands and titles. The following year, Godwin died and Harold became Earl of Wessex

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

Harold might have inherited Godwin’s characteristics: determined and single minded, ambitious and wily; patient, compassionate, forgiving, loyal, and honourable; but also ruthless when necessary. Orderic, the chronicler, wrote of Harold that he “was distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities. But what availed so many valuable gifts, when good faith, the foundation of all virtues, was wanting?” Where Orderic got his information is not known. Given that he had been born in 1075, it was not possible that he had ever met Harold, although he may have met somebody who had.

We can only glimpse historical personages, especially in preconquest England where much of what was known has been lost. The chronicles are often written as propaganda, or very subjectively. Sometimes, we can imagine what a man was like by what we know of his deeds. It seems to me that many of the negative accounts of Harold’s character come from Norman propaganda and outside of that, it is hard to judge. Harold appears to have been amiable, much liked, fair and just, although he could also be ruthless, as his actions in Wales have proven. Then again, Gruffudd, King of Wales, caused havoc in English border lands and gave harbour to recalcitrant English earls.

Harold had been involved in negotiating with the Welsh king and was very patient, even after Gruffudd broke the treaties time and time again. Eventually Harold lost his patience and made a spectacular lightning strike with mounted troops into Wales, bringing death and destruction to the countryside. It took a second, large scale two-pronged invasion along with Harold’s brother Tostig to finally defeat the Welsh, who handed over their king, minus his body.

A few years later, Harold, by then in his forties, was to repeat the impressive feat of covering territory at speed when he marched his huscarls 200 miles northwards, gathering an army on the way, to surprise Tostig and Harald Hardrada and to defeat them at Stamford Bridge. It required strength and stamina to carry out such fatigues and to then march back to fight a battle at Hastings within three weeks was remarkable, not only for Harold but for his huscarls who must have been powerful, strong, fit men. One can’t help but think of Orderic’s description of Harold’s strength of body and his singlemindedness.

Harold seems to have been Edward’s chief negotiator and a loyal servant of the crown. He was referred to as Dux Anglorum which meant that he was Edward’s number one man and the second most powerful man in England, bar the king. In fact, he appears to have had more power than even the king, and was able to influence Edward’s decisions. For example, he refused to back Tostig when the northern thegns, fed up with Tostig’s harsh rule in the north, wanted him out in favour of Morcar, brother of the Mercian earl, Edwin. Such a move was unprecedented around this time and Edward was not having it. He ordered his general to force them to cease their demands using military might. But Harold overruled the king, and Tostig, his own brother, had to go.

Was Harold jealous of his brother because he was the king’s favourite, or was he simply able to put aside brotherly love in order to avert a civil war? I cannot discount the first; Harold was human and may have been concerned for his own position, but with Hardrada and William of Normandy both watching the crown, one would not want to incite a rebellion that would divide the kingdom and make her vulnerable. Ultimately, Harold’s actions, whether those of an angry, jealous brother or not, showed that he would put the interests of the country and the people above that of family and even the king.

And what of Harold’s faithlessness which Orderic refers to? Historians are divided over the two versions of Harold’s trip to Normandy, the Norman and the English. In both versions, Harold is said to have made an oath to William that he would become his loyal vassal in England, and that upon Edward’s death, Harold would support William’s claim to the crown and ease the way for William succeeding to the throne of England. Orderic is not specific when he accuses Harold of faithlessness, but it is reasonable to assume that he was referring to this oath. Orderic, of course, was half-Norman and supported William’s claim.

Eamer, a writer of English history, states that Harold did not go to Normandy to bend the knee to William but to secure the release of the English hostages, his brother and nephew, who had been taken there by the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. This seems much more likely than the story he had gone to offer his support to William. Why would he agree to become his vassal in England? Harold was the equivalent to a duke, a Dux Anglorum, second to the king. His status was as high as William’s. Furthermore, Harold could not be William’s vassal whilst Edward still lived.

Eadmer claims that the oath Harold made to William was made under duress, and could honourably be broken. I don’t think Harold betrayed William at all. I think William used his local power to hold Harold hostage in a strange land and to coerce Harold into making that oath. This meant Harold did nothing wrong in using Church law to break an oath that was made under fear for his life and those of his companions and relatives. William had a reputation of making people disappear. Harold was not in any position to refuse him.

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

Looking at the available evidence, Harold may have been one of the best kings of the era, and possibly one of England’s most promising kings, had he been given that chance. He was ambitious, like many men of his time. He was confident, wily, and not afraid to put himself forward. When Edward lay dying, he would have discussed his manifesto with the other nobles who would have weighed up all their concerns especially the threat to England from other shores. They knew that to safeguard the English people’s interests and way of life, a strong, experienced leader would be needed. Edgar, the atheling, had been Edward’s intended heir, but Edward would have known that the kingdom needed someone like Harold, not an inexperienced boy in his early teens. I believe that is why in the end, he named Harold as his successor and why the witan agreed to elect him as king.

When Harold’s star began to rise in the 1040s, it was plain to see that he was a capable, loyal, general. He did what he could to avoid conflict within the realm on Edward’s behalf as if he had the foresight to conserve what energy England had for the really big event that was to come.

Harold was not just a warrior, diplomat and a king’s administrator, he was a husband and father. He remained loyal to Edith, his first handfasted wife until he wed the sister of the northern earls to bind them to him. It was customary in the 11th century for men in power to wed unofficially, so that they could make political alliances when they needed them. If the story that Edith was on the battlefield looking for his body after Hastings is true, then they must have still remained close enough for her to be there. His other heavily pregnant wife, Ealdgyth, who had been King Gruffudd’s first wife, had been taken to Chester for her safety by her brothers.

Edith Swanneck looking for Harold’s body

Harold could have been a great king if he had lived. It was said, when he became king, that he made laws that would curb the unlawful doings of men and had been making changes in the kingdom for good. When Harold was told that William had landed on the Sussex coast and was ravaging his lands, he wanted to engage the invaders as soon as possible for it was his people’s lands that were being ravaged as well as his own. William would have known the psychological effect this would have had on Harold. William and Harold had been friends and William probably knew his weaknesses. Harold had saved men from drowning when on campaign with William in Normandy, William knew he would not stand by and watch people die.

Some people believe that in taking the throne from Edgar, Harold showed his greed and ambition, and yes. he was ambitious and to be able to make a bid for the throne, a man had to have power. Wealth was power, as I have already said. But why should Harold not be king? Why should he have just settled for regent and perhaps fought the battle for Edgar on his behalf? Over the years, he’d certainly earned it. It should have been his time and when he died at Hastings, set upon by the Normans determined to see him dead, that chance was stolen from him. He died fighting for his land, his people and to keep England free of Norman enslavement. For me that is the epitome of kingship, and that is why he is on my favourite historical character list.

To see the rest of the blog posts that came before Harold’s, just check out these sites! You can also find links to these other participants on our Historical Writers Forum Blog Hoppers Page

The above article relates to research done for my Sons of the Wolf series

The Rise of Edward the Confessor: The Story of the Man Who But For a Quirk of Fate, Might Never Have Been King

How Edward Became King

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 1 : le roi Édouard le Confesseur
Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 1: King Edward the Confessor and Earl Harold. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Author: Myrabella

Edward, son of Æthelred, must have been one of, if not the luckiest Anglo-Saxon king, to take the throne of England. He started out with his chances of succeeding his father looking very hopeful up to the age of about eight. Then his luck ran out with the coming of Danish invaders, Swegn and Cnut. His father Æthelred, chased out of England, returned only to die in the midst of the Danish invasion. With Edward’s older brother Edmund¹ on the throne in Wessex and Cnut in charge of the Danelaw, Edward’s chances of becoming king in the near future looked slim, and they got even slimmer when Edmund, the courageous Ironside, died from his battle wounds leaving the kingdom to Cnut as agreed by the treaty the two men had made.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, his dear mother, Queen Emma, decided to get into a new marriage bed with Cnut, which was followed by two more children, leaving poor old Edward and his brother, Alfred, out in the cold in Normandy.

The years go by, and Edward spends it in exile, cultivating a hatred for his mother, that will last a life time. And who could blame him? After all, she abandoned the interests of her sons by Æthelred to marry this Cnut chap who is years younger than her and not willing to play stepdaddy to two young lads one little bit. Emma, perhaps, struck by memory problem, forgot her children from her former marriage which also included a daughter, Goda. Most likely, Emma negotiated her own terms for her new marriage, seeing as her brother, in a fit of pique, disowned her when instead of fighting for her sons’ throne, sailed back to England to wed Cnut, and it would seem that within those terms there is no room for Edward or Alfred in this happy new family. And so, Emma, as far as her eldest son was concerned, banged the first nail into her coffin, and there were more nails to be hammered in the coming years.

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Emma and Cnut – public domain

Despite her neglect of her eldest children, Emma of Normandy was quite a woman for her time. Born somewhere between 985 and 989 she was shipped off to England in 1002 to marry Æthelred who was to earn the nomenclature Unready for prosperity. In becoming the second Mrs Unready, Emma was the first Norman queen of England. If her treatment of her children by Mr Unready is anything to go by, she obviously didn’t like her first husband. He was, no doubt, a lot older than her having grown up children of his own. She may had loved her first children dearly, but it still didn’t stop her from running to Cnut without securing something for them. Cnut probably needed her as much as she needed him, however, whether Cnut was unwilling to agree to her sons having a stake in the crown, or whether Emma was agreeable to forgoing their rights, is unsure. Whatever the machinations, I imagine that it was part of the nuptial contract that Emma forego her children’s rights, but she probably secured the succession for any children she had by Cnut over his children by any others. To give credit to her, she pulled off an amazing coup by becoming Cnut’s queen, ousting the backside of her rival, Ælfgifu², from his bed and replacing it with her own, getting her hands on that crown for the second time running.

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Norman knights supported by archers attack the English at the Battle of Hastings. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century

Edward probably spends the next twenty-five years living in Normandy being educated with his brother and being brought up as knights. He seems to make several friends, one of them being Robert Champart who may have travelled from Normandy with him later to England when his half-brother, Harthacnut, recalled him to assist with his government. It is not known exactly how he carried on his affairs in Normandy or what his relationship was like with Duke Robert or his young son, William. William would have only been in his infancy when Edward himself was a young man and Edward did not seem to have had much to do with him during the dangerous years of William’s succession to his father’s dukedom. It is unlikely that the Norman propaganda in later years that promulgated their relationship as cordial and supportive was true. Edward is not mentioned in the sources as being a member of his courtly officials which seems to have been carried out by close members of the senior duke’s family and that of  William’s mother. If Edward had been involved in the boy duke’s administration, I’m sure that it would have been documented. They may have known each other distantly, but there is no evidence to state that there was any love between them and by the time Edward sailed for England, the young duke would have been no older than twelve or thirteen. Edward may have studied at Jumièges, as his relationship with Robert Champart of Jumièges might suggest. Or he might have lived at the Abbey of Fécamp as his gifts to them during his reign might also suggest. William Calculus, a monk of Jumièges stated that Edward and Ælfred completed their schooling in the ducal court, which William of Poitiers, Archdeacon of Lisieux also repeats. No doubt, however, that whatever the case, the brothers were most likely brought up as young noble men would have been. Initially as pages, then learning squirely duties where they would also have learned to sing, dance, and fight on horseback as chevaliers.

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York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum)

Meanwhile, whilst Edward was going about his activities in Normandy, Cnut died. The date of his death was November of 1035. The country was split into to 2 factions, with those supporting Cnut’s son by Ælfgifu, Harold Harefoot in the north and those supporting his son, Harthacnut, by Emma in the south. Nobody thought about the two sons of Æthlefred languishing in exile over the water in Normandy – or perhaps they did, and found Edward wanting, if anyone had bothered to look into his character that is, as it was to become clear later, Edward was hardly the epitome of a king in such a warrior society as this, despite his knightly upbringing. Æthelred did have other sons that the English might have looked to but by this time, they were all dead, and any issue from them may have been obscure or missing, as was Edmund’s sons³, at this time, abroad in exile.
So, with Harthacnut held up in Denmark, unable to get back to England to claim his throne, his half-brother, Harold, is proclaimed king in his brother’s absence. Harold hurried to Emma in Winchester and seizes the royal treasury and regalia from her. The next blow for Emma came when Godwin, who had been a supporter of Harthacnut, accepts that his lot would be better served by switching sides, and Emma, vulnerable and concerned for her own position is thought to have reached out to her first-born sons in Normandy. Edward and Ælfred cross separately with a contingent each to meet their mother in England. The Earl of Wessex intercepted Ælfred on his way to parley with Harold and Godwin handed him over to Harefoot’s henchmen. Edward is said to have landed in Southampton but is either repulsed or perhaps sent a messenger from his mother which warns him off and he scuttles back home the way he came. Emma later claimed that Harefoot forged a letter to lure her sons to England and as in Ælfred’s case, eventual death.  Whatever his reasons for intercepting Ælfred, Earl Godwin was to be blamed for the rest of his life by Edward for the death of his brother: an accusation that was said to have haunted Godwin until his death.
Harold Harefoot eventually has a timely death which coincides with Harthacnut’s return to England shortly after to take up his post as king. When he heard about the death of his half-brother, Ælfred, the first thing  he did was to dig up Harold Harefoot’s corpse and toss it in a ditch, so incensed was he. But he wasn’t to live for too long either, even though he was only about twenty-four at the time, he might have had some insight into his health. Not having married or fathered any known sons, he was advised to invite his older brother from across the sea in Normandy, to join him and be one of his counsellors. Edward had by now given up any thoughts of being king, so the summons must have come as a surprise.

Queen Emma, wife of Ethelred II and Cnut, receives the book from its author, watched by her sons Harthacnut and Edward (King Edward the Confessor)
Emma receives the Encomium from its author, flanked by Harthacnut and Edward, 11th century (c) British Library Board/Bridgeman Imageson

This must have seemed like a miracle to Edward, who, as the Vita Ædwardi Regis claims was sworn in as the future king when Emma was pregnant. The will of God had been that Edward would be their king all along, and that God had postponed the event in order to punish the people for their sins. Despite the auspisiousness of the prophecy, this was given to add meaning to Edward’s long-awaited kingship, thus rationalising the development of his saintly persona. Edward was now elevated to the highest status one could ever achieve. Just a few weeks prior to his invitation from his half-brother, Edward had been in the unlikely position of ever becoming king. Now, he was the king’s heir. Edward, without doing anything, had achieved the seemingly impossible. He had started out in a goodly position. His mother’s pre-marriage contract arranged by her brother, the Duke of Normandy, would have seen to it that any of her sons borne of Æthelred’s seed would have taken precedence over any of his sons from another woman’s womb.
Harthacnut, it was said as per the Encomium Emma, was inspired by brotherly love, because he obviously loved Edward even though he’d never given him a thought throughout his life, invited Edward to come and hold the kingdom with him. Edward hopefully didn’t rush into this rashly, after all, he’d only waited 25 years, but he obeyed the summons and ‘Emma and her two sons among whom there was true loyalty,’ ehem, *coughs, ‘amicably share the kingdom’s revenues.’ Poitiers chose to believe that William of Normandy, then only a mere twelve or thirteen, had something to do with helping the exile get back home to his rightful place.

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Edward’s Coronation

It’s possible that whilst Emma was in Bruges waiting for Harthacnut to withdraw from his issues in Denmark, some sort of reconciliation between the two brothers and their mother was made. Perhaps Emma at last felt the burden of guilt lay heavily on her shoulders, or perhaps it was Harthacnut’s idea, wanting to meet his brother and form a bond with him.
As it happened, the two brothers may have had just about enough time to get to know each other and form some sort of friendship before Harthacnut died, binging on drink in 1042 at the wedding of Tovi the Proud. He was said to have stood up to make a speech and then keeled over in what one can only imagine was some sort of stupor. He was never to recover. There is no suggestion that poison was involved, despite the fact that Harthacnut was not very well liked. In any case, the miracle that Edward had needed all his life if he was ever to be king, had finally happened. God’s will had been done, the English were punished enough, and Edward was now their king at last. The man who ought never to have been king, was elevated to that exulted place at last.

Notes

¹ King Edmund II known as the Ironside for his strength and courage.

²Ælfgifu of Northampton was Cnut’s first alliance, the daughter of an important Northern Anglo-Saxon family. She was the mother of Cnut’s two sons, Svein and Harold.

³ Edmund’s sons, Edward and Edmund, were sent abroad when they were infants to be done away with on Cnut’s orders. Luckily for them, the king of Sweden took pity on them and at least one of them survived into adulthood. Edward Edmundson was to become the subject of a mission by King Edward to find himself an heir.

References

Barlow F. 1997 Edward the Confessor, Yale University Press, Newhaven and London

Swanton M. 2000 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Phoenix Press, London.

Walker W. I. 2004 Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King