Post-classical history

7

Harold Godwinson

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EDWARD THE CONFESSOR celebrated his fiftieth birthday in 1053, able to console himself that his great tormentor, Earl Godwin, was dead. Some have seen the suspicious death of Godwin as the occasion for Edward’s reassertion of regal authority. The argument is that by juggling the earldoms the king achieved a redistribution of power away from the Godwin family; he used the pretext of appointing Harold Godwinson to his father’s earldom in Wessex to give Harold’s previous earldom in East Anglia to Aelfgar, Leofric’s son. But what we do not know is whether this arrangement had Harold’s approval, and in many respects it is inconceivable that it could not have had it, since the new earl of Wessex was in some ways an even more titanic figure in the land than his father had been. At the beginning of Edward’s reign, Godwin, Leofric and Siward were of roughly equal wealth and influence, but by the time of Godwin’s death, his family had far outstripped their rivals.1

Some idea of the power Harold Godwinson wielded in England in the 1050s and early 1060s can be derived from his sheer wealth in land. He first witnessed charters as an earl in 1045 but by 1057 his estates alone were worth £2,847; his nearest challenger as a landowner was Morcar, son of Aelfgar, with lands worth £960. To put these figures into perspective it is worth noting the landed wealth of other earls: Siward at the time of his death in 1055 was worth £350, Earl Ralph in the same period was worth £170, and Edwin, the other son of Aelfgar, held lands to the value of £588; by contrast, Tostig Godwinson had estates worth £492, Gyrth was worth £250 and Leofwine £588. In short, both Godwin and his sons were immensely wealthy, lived lavishly and were early exponents of conspicuous consumption.2

If we add to the wealth of Godwin’s sons the land held by their mother and their sisters and that owned in her own right by Edith, who always took her family’s side against the king, and the £1,200 in the hands of thegns loyal to the Godwinsons, by 1066 the family controlled at least £7,500 of real estate, of which the four Godwin sons possessed £5,000. The estates were widespread across England. Sixty per cent of Harold’s lands lay south of the Thames – in Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall – and the rest in Essex, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire and the South Midlands. Tostig’s were mainly in Yorkshire, Hampshire and the Midlands; Gyrth’s in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire; Leofwine’s in Kent, Middlesex, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Devon; Gytha’s in Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon; and her daughter Gunnhild by Godwin had holdings in Somerset. But so far was Harold the dominant landowner, even in his brothers’ earldoms, that in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex he owned more than Gyrth and in Yorkshire twice as much as Tostig.3

The pattern of acquisition by the Godwinsons was interesting. Edward transferred lands to them not by slicing tranches off the royal demesne or rewarding them with the confiscated estates of particular families but by ceding ad hoc those parts of ancient ecclesiastical, ealdormanean and royal estates that were particularly vulnerable militarily or especially important for the defence of the realm. To some extent, therefore, the holdings of the Godwinsons had a geopolitical significance. Since Edward perceived the main threat to England as coming from Flanders or Normandy – rather than Scandinavia – Sussex and Kent increasingly loomed in his calculations. This is the probable explanation of the rise of Godwin and his family, for they were the first South Saxon dynasty to be prominent in Anglo-Saxon politics; hitherto the south-east had been a backwater and all eyes had been on Winchester, Wessex and southern Mercia.4

By 1066 Harold and his brothers held 66 per cent of all land in the English earldoms; by contrast, Leofric’s family had 31 per cent and Siward’s just 3 per cent, and by the time of Edward’s death his lands were worth £1,550 less than those of the Godwin family. The Godwinsons and their thegns controlled over a third of all England’s arable land, and their dominance was particularly marked in Sussex, where the Godwin brothers alone had estates worth £850 – a quarter the value of the entire county. In Sussex all the thegns were Harold’s men and a similar situation obtained in Essex and Herefordshire. But the tentacles of the Godwinsons stretched far and wide, as Harold alone had land in all but five counties and, in the few where he had no holdings, his brothers were usually prominent, as with Leofwine in Kent.5

All this land gave the Godwinsons immense power, for thousands of modest thegns and freemen were sucked into their orbit as clients, as it were spontaneously. Nothing succeeds like success, so that the Godwin family were very soon approached to extend their lordship over many of the wealthiest thegns too. They could attract a huge following, as their vast holdings allowed them to alienate property to land-hungry thegns and housecarls, to support them in courts or protect them from neighbours. The more the Godwinsons acquired, the more they were sought after as patrons. But some scholars have seen the hegemony of the Godwinsons and the weakness of the king as twin factors making late Anglo-Saxon society peculiarly brittle and vulnerable. Edward’s tolerance of the Godwinsons, of whom it is known he disapproved, clearly reveals his impotence, but on the other hand the fact that the Godwinsons had come from nowhere and achieved their dominant position within fifty years after Cnut wiped out the old aristocracy meant that the family did not have suficient time to consolidate and put down strong roots before facing serious external threats.6

An important question crying out for resolution is the exact relationship of the Godwin family to the Church, for the traditional ‘black legend’ portrays them as irreligious despoilers of church property. To an extent the Godwins were unfairly blackened by Norman propagandists for an activity that was common and conventional Anglo-Saxon practice. Godwin himself was probably harsher towards the Church than his sons, and it is perhaps significant that there was no ecclesiastical foundation associated with his name. In his defence it can be said that, having risen from obscurity, he was in a hurry to acquire lands so that he could advance his sons and that market forces played into his hands owing to the financial plight of many monasteries. He had a good reputation among the religious communities of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, Worcester and Peterborough, but against this are clearly documented spoliations and appropriations, principally at Canterbury, involving Godwin personally.7

Harold Godwinson, on the other hand, presents a much more nuanced picture. He and his brothers were out of favour with the papacy for supporting the traditional Anglo-Saxon church which Rome regarded as corrupt. And he and his brothers did on occasion go in for outright seizures of church lands, on one famous occasion provoking a major confrontation with the angry Bishop Giso of Wells. A notable example of the power the Godwinsons could wield occurred when Edward under pressure granted Harold the rights to Steyning in Sussex, even though he had already given it to the Norman abbey of Fécamp.8 It was this kind of riding roughshod over Edward’s authority that led one recent scholar to declare: ‘The fact that the Godwinsons could permanently alienate land set aside for the endowment of royal officials is a sure sign that the West Saxon monarchy was in serious trouble.’9

On the other hand, Harold was a generous benefactor of the Church in some areas, notably at Durham and Waltham Holy Cross in Essex, where he endowed an abbey and later became the focus of a cult. The truth about Harold’s ‘irreligiosity’ is probably that he merely favoured one religious foundation over another and that the losers then traduced him as being an enemy of the Church.10 It must be remembered that Harold continued his father’s policy of favouring one set of ecclesiastical magnates against another, and here too the disadvantaged divines had powerful propagandist voices. The controversial takeover of the Christchurch estates in Kent by the Godwinsons was achieved with the approval and assistance of Stigand, Ealdred and Eadsige, who were family favourites Harold inherited from his father. To the list of Godwin clerical protégés he himself added Wulfstan, the Abbot and later Bishop of Worcester, who became a close friend.11

Harold Godwinson was the most powerful man in England during the thirteen years after 1053. Of the three great personalities of 1066, he is probably the most straightforward, lacking the darkest hues of William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada of Norway. From the eulogies of his supporters and the denunciations of his enemies – often, surprisingly, agreeing on the same characteristics – a reasonably trustworthy picture emerges. He was tall, probably around 5 feet 11 inches or 6 feet, remarkably handsome, graceful, and possessed of superabundant strength; in the Bayeux Tapestry he is depicted pulling a Norman knight from quicksands with one hand during the 1064 campaign in Brittany.12

Able to endure great hardships and to do without food and sleep for forty-eight hours while campaigning, Harold was a formidable warrior and a shrewd captain in the field. Singularly forbearing and merciful for a great man in such a cruel age, Harold impressed all who met him by his frank and open nature, his sunny temperament, his easygoing self-confidence, his even temper and his ability to take contradiction without flinching. Loyal and, if anything, over-trusting, he provoked contrary opinions from observers on his capability as a decision-maker: some said he was too slow to act and liked to tarry and enjoy himself too much en route to an objective; others that he was inclined to be impetuous and rash, to take the first option from the top of his head and make policy on the wing, but always within a general framework of basic shrewdness, which even his Norman enemies acknowledged.13

From an early age Harold had made it his business to be fully abreast of political developments on the Continent, and especially in France, to know the rulers and all their strengths and weaknesses. He advocated alliances with Flanders and Denmark, thus flying in the face of Edward’s diplomatic orientation, and favoured intriguing with the king of France to keep any latent threat from Normandy dormant. The monk-historian John of Worcester regarded Harold as a second Judas Maccabeus (the Jewish patriot in the struggle against Antiochus of Syria in the second century BC) and William of Malmesbury concurred that love of England was probably Harold’s most outstanding characteristic.14 It is perhaps unfortunate that Godwin’s son was taken up in later writings as a hero of the resistance of the ‘pure’ Saxon race to the yoke of the Normans, but later events were to prove that he was held in genuinely high regard by the thegns of England, who approved of his habit of discussing his policies and battle plans with a wide circle of friends and associates.

Both at the time and ever since observers have been drawn irresistibly to compare and contrast Harold with his younger brother Tostig, another ambitious high-flyer, who signalled his intention to make his mark in Europe by the marriage with Judith of Flanders. Tostig was also courageous and shrewd, though neither as good a general as Harold nor quite as cunning. Although he fought hard to achieve self-restraint, he was quick-tempered, dogmatic and tended to see things in black and white or, as the author of the Vita Eadwardi put it, ‘was a little overzealous in attacking evil’.15 Very slow to make up his mind, once he did he was inflexible and acted decisively. Generous and famously a man of his word, he was inclined to be secretive and lacked Harold’s gift for living life to the full: Tostig aimed merely at success but Harold felt success should also involve happiness. Tostig did not have Harold’s wit – which to his critics sometimes involved allowing his tongue to run away with him – and was, on the face of it, an introvert to Harold’s extrovert, except that all who met the brothers remarked that, their very different personalities notwithstanding, it was very hard ever to know what they were really thinking.16

There seems no good reason for imagining that before 1065 the two were anything other than devoted siblings. Until he was appointed Earl of Northumbria, Tostig made no significant enemies, perhaps because he curbed his tongue where Harold allowed his full rein, and he largely avoided the ecclesiastical odium in which Harold was held in some quarters. Whereas Edward had hated Godwin and was largely indifferent to Harold, he genuinely adored Tostig, as did his wife Edith, who far preferred him to her other male siblings. Perhaps the devious, circumspect and introverted Edward recognized a kindred spirit, or perhaps the contrary was the case, producing the attraction of opposites, and this essentially passive monarch recognized the driving ambition behind Tostig’s pious surface. As for Edith, she may have been drawn to Tostig rather than Harold because of the younger man’s notable solicitude for women and his known fidelity to his wife. Harold by contrast was a known hedonist and womanizer. Where Tostig dutifully contracted a dynastic marriage with Judith of Flanders, Harold preferred the twilight state, half wedlock, half concubinage, of the liaison more danico with Edith Swan-neck, which brought him further territorial holdings. From this union came five sons, Ulf, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus and Harold, and two daughters, Gytha and Gunnhild.17

After 1053 the history of Edward’s reign became largely the story of the exploits of the Godwinsons, with a shadowy monarch reduced to figurehead status. Relations with the Celtic fringes occupied much of the king’s time, and border warfare became as much an annual and predictable affair as the interminable wars in Scandinavia between Svein Estrithson and Harald Hardrada. The dominant figure in Wales at the time was Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, ruler over the northern and central areas. Known as ‘Alexander of Wales’, he first attracted notice in 1039 when he annihilated a Mercian force near Welshpool on the upper Severn; the English commander, Eadwine, Earl Leofric’s brother, died in the vicious hand-to-hand fighting.18

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was hated by the English and he, more than any man, was responsible for the violent upsurge of anti-Welsh sentiment that would reach an apogee in the following century. The perception of the Welsh, dating from Gruffydd’s hegemony, was that they were treacherous and cowardly, craven in face of superior force, bold and merciless when they had the whip hand, but essentially primitive people who worshipped only power and the authority of the sword. What especially irritated the Anglo-Saxons and their successors in England was the way the Welsh surrounded their mayhem and rapine with an aura of legend, so that cattle-thieves, rapists and murderers were presented in Welsh bardic tradition as mythical heroes. The locus classicus of this sort of thing was the remark attributed to Gruffydd when accused of executing all actual and potential pretenders to his kingdom. He shrugged and replied: ‘I kill no one; I only blunt the horns of Wales lest they wound their mother.’19

From 1044 there was another powerful Gruffydd in South Wales, Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, who proved himself as troublesome a scourge as his northern namesake by his defeat of Bishop Ealdred on the Wye in 1049 – the event that set in train Swein Godwinson’s murder of Bjorn. Preoccupied as he was with the crisis involving Swein in 1050 and then the near-civil war with the Godwins in 1051–52, Edward was not ready to retaliate until 1053, but when he did so the allegedly saintly Confessor proved he could be as ruthless as any of the other players in the game of power politics. He took his revenge for the depredations of four years earlier by sending a death squad to bring back the head of Gruffydd ap Rhydderch’s brother. In retaliation the enraged ruler of South Wales raided across the border and ambushed a large English patrol near Westbury on the Severn.20

Once again Edward’s attention was distracted elsewhere, for in 1054 Normandy and Scotland occupied his thoughts. Late that year Duke William of Normandy sent John, Abbot of Fécamp, to Edward on a mission whose real purpose is unknown. Ostensibly, John, who had a reputation for piety and sanctity, was supposed to be visiting the abbey’s English possessions at Winchelsea and Rye, but the only concrete result of his interview with Edward was a request for further lands at Eastbourne. Since John could have sent one of his deputies on such a trivial errand, the suspicion arises that he was in England for some other purpose. Maybe William wanted some reassurance that his 1051 ‘understanding’ with Edward was still in place after the return of the Godwins. Or maybe the duke, flushed with his great military victory against the French in 1054, was already considering that he might have to fight the Godwins and sent John on a military espionage mission. This is once again an instance of copious sources being long on irrelevant detail but short on pith and moment.21

More immediately significant, earlier in 1054 Edward ordered Siward, Earl of Northumbria, to invade Scotland in support of the pretender Malcolm, son of the king Duncan who had been assassinated by Macbeth in 1040 as part of an anti-English reaction north of the border. Since Siward and Duncan had been kinsmen, the Earl of Northumbria accepted with alacrity. This is yet another example of Edward the ruthless aggressor, the angry man who transfers private problems on to the public stage, who loves military solutions but baulks at fighting in the field himself, for Macbeth’s reign had been remarkably peaceful and his later evil reputation was entirely the product of the overheated imaginations of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century chroniclers.22

With a well-equipped fleet and a contingent of Edward’s own housecarls, Siward crossed the border from Northumbria and brought King Macbeth to battle north of the Tay in Perthshire. The result was defeat for Macbeth in a bloody battle (where there were 3,000 Scots casualties and 1,500 English); among the Scots casualties was a sizeable contingent of French mercenaries, formerly men who had been based in Herefordshire but fled to Macbeth when Godwin was restored in 1052. Siward placed Malcolm on the throne, whence he devoted himself to tracking down the elusive Macbeth, who had survived the battle; he finally caught up with him and killed him at the battle of Lumphanan in 1057.23

The year 1055 was a period of drama when attention switched back to Wales. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn had his southern namesake assassinated, which enabled him to stand forth as king of all Wales. A united Wales was a serious threat to English security, but the situation was made worse when Siward died, for his son Aelfgar was known to have intrigued with Gruffydd and could scarcely be allowed to succeed in Northumbria. Under pressure from Harold and Edith, Edward outlawed Aelfgar for treason – though the aggrieved son of Siward protested that he was entirely innocent – and appointed Tostig to the earldom, slicing off a tranche so as to be able to favour Gyrth. The charge against Aelfgar, whatever its intrinsic merits, soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the banished magnate fled to Gruffydd and made common cause with him.24

When Aelfgar, in an action reminiscent of Harold and Leofwine in 1052, returned from Ireland to Wales with eighteen ships and men, he proved a valuable ally for Gruffydd. Together they attacked Hereford in October, only to be intercepted by Earl Ralph two miles outside the city walls. The result was a fiasco: Ralph, overcautious, ordered his Anglo-French troops to mount up and attack as cavalry, but the war cries and ululations from the Welsh warriors and the Irish Norsemen panicked the horses, who stampeded off the field, leaving Ralph’s unprotected and outnumbered infantry to be slaughtered. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy, Gruffydd’s men then turned on Hereford itself to slake their lust for massacre. The town was sacked and all but razed to the ground; the new cathedral was pillaged and then gutted, its clergy butchered; all male defenders were put to the sword, while women were raped and led off with their children into slavery.25

Edward could scarcely ignore this atrocity, since his very credibility was at stake. He summoned levies from all corners of England and gave the command to Harold Godwinson. Harold was the natural choice for this operation, combining as he did the roles of deputy to the king, great territorial magnate and England’s finest captain, but it should not be imagined that he accepted the command with anything other than avidity. Having mustered his army at Gloucester, he advanced into Wales, hoping to tempt Gruffydd to an early engagement, but the Welsh melted away before him; some said the cunning Welsh king already knew something of Harold’s calibre from his spies and decided not to risk testing his ability on the battlefield. Denied his prey, Harold returned to Hereford, which he partially rebuilt, fortified and surrounded with defence works. Presumably in consultation with Edward, he split the enemy alliance by offering Aelfgar pardon and the recovery of his earldom in East Anglia. For the time being Gruffydd was left in possession of his conquests, except for an enclave to the west of the Dee – an arrangement that saved face on both sides.26

Harold’s prestige lost nothing from the outcome in Wales, and his position was strengthened by the passing of many of the old guard: Siward died in 1055, Odda in 1056, Leofric and Earl Ralph in 1057. In 1056 Harold was absent from Wales, as he spent a good part of that year on the Continent as a roving ambassador, but it is not easy to keep track of his movements nor to be precise about the aims of his diplomacy. He was certainly in St-Omer in November and visited Flanders to promote the reversal of alliances in favour of Baldwin for which he had always lobbied. He also met Pope Victor II at Cologne and the emperor at Regensburg, but opinion is divided on whether he accompanied the pontiff back to Rome; some even say there was a second Continental visit by Harold in 1058 and it was on that occasion that he went to Rome. But that he already had powerful enemies is certain, for we learn that by his skill and cunning he avoided an ambush that had been set for him: as the Vita Eadwardi puts it: ‘By God’s grace he came home, passing with watchful mockery through all ambushes, as was his way.’27

During his absence, most of his good work in Wales was undone. When Aethelstan of Hereford died in February 1056, Edward appointed Leofgar, Harold’s clerk, to the vacancy. Leofgar was considered by many to be an unsuitable promotion to the see, for he emulated his master Harold in wearing long blond hair and moustaches – a fashion habitually decried by the Church as pagan – and yearned to match him in martial glory. Within three months of his consecration, the warrior-bishop of Hereford took the field against Gruffydd, only to be disastrously defeated and slain (together with most of the élite – priests, sheriff and thegns – of Hereford) in June at Glasbury-on-Wye. Further campaigning by the English led nowhere, so Harold on his return patched up another peace with Gruffydd, co-opting as negotiators Bishop Ealdred and Earl Leofric. It was agreed that there would be a formal reconciliation with Edward, with the Welsh king acknowledging fealty.28

Tradition says that Edward was most reluctant to agree to this peace – which he saw as a humiliation – favoured continuing the war and was grudgingly talked into it by the triumvirate of Harold, Ealdred and Leofric, whose last significant political act this was. The king was also angry that, having pardoned Aelfgar, he found that troublesome earl continuing to play both sides against the middle and, indeed to be strengthening his Welsh alliance by the marriage of his daughter to Gruffydd. If tradition is correct, and Edward met Gruffydd on the banks of the river Severn near Gloucester, at the ferry crossing, his temper can scarcely have been improved, for Gruffydd started a tiresome wrangle about precedence. He claimed that he was the senior king and Edward should cross the water to meet him, since the Welsh had once conquered the whole of Great Britain; Edward replied that he inherited Britain from its Scandinavian conquerors. Legend has the saintly Edward humbly begin to cross the river, only for Gruffydd to be overcome by the Confessor’s sanctity and do him homage.29

The year 1057 saw diplomatic activity on another front, or possibly Harold’s European trip in 1056 meant that Edward was already putting out tentative feelers. Despite the previous vague half-promises to Svein Estrithson and William of Normandy, the king finally decided on the man he definitely wanted to succeed him. This was Edward the Atheling, son of Edmund Ironside, currently residing in Hungary. For a bare twelve months in 1015–16 Cnut had shared the kingdom of England with Edmund, with Cnut holding the north and Edmund the south. After Edmund’s death Cnut, wishing to be rid of any rivals to the throne but seeking to avoid the opprobrium of cold-blooded murder, sent Ironside’s infant sons Edmund and Edward to Sweden with instructions that they be quietly put down and the whole thing presented as an accident. But, as in a medieval fairy tale, the king of Sweden took pity on the innocent babes and sent them on to Hungary, out of harm’s way. Edmund died young, but Edward married Agatha, a daughter of Emperor Henry II’s brother, and sired three children – two daughters, Margaret and Christina, and a son, Edgar the Atheling.30

The choice of Edward the Atheling as heir presumptive had been on the Confessor’s mind since 1054. In that year he sent Bishop Ealdred to Germany to sound the emperor’s reaction to the proposal, but even as Ealdred was en route to the imperial court, Baldwin of Flanders once more raised the standard of revolt against Henry III, this time in conjunction with a revolt in Hungary. The patient Ealdred was treated with great consideration by the emperor but left dangling without a reply; in this way he spent an entire year at the imperial court at Cologne. Finally he got his answer. Angry with the Magyar forays into his empire, Henry told Ealdred that the time was not ripe; the unsettled situation in Hungary weighed far more with him than the prospect of seeing his kinsman on the throne of England.31

The Magyar kingdom of Hungary had been simmering with revolt since 1046, when the nationalist party took the upper hand, but matters took a more serious turn in 1054 when the Hungarians, in collusion with Baldwin and Kuno, the deposed Duke of Bavaria, invaded Carinthia. Edward the Confessor bided his time and waited for an opportunity to resurrect the atheling succession project. The chance came in October 1056 when the affairs of the empire were again thrown into confusion, by the death of Henry III. Given Harold’s presence both in Flanders and Germany the very next month, it is inconceivable that the succession of Edward the Atheling was not again at the head of the agenda.32

By 1057 Edward the Atheling, who had been initially reluctant to accept the Confessor’s offer, saw his safe refuge in Hungary turning into a cockpit of war as the political situation in central Europe worsened. Ealdred once again set out as the English envoy, and this time he secured the Atheling’s return to England; it is even possible that Harold met them and escorted them back across the Channel. By now a universal consensus had formed: Edward the Atheling was the overwhelming favourite to succeed to the English throne, since his candidacy was backed by Edward, by Queen Edith and all the Godwinsons, especially Harold.33 Norman propaganda notwithstanding, Harold’s support for the Atheling makes nonsense of the allegation that he was casting envious eyes on the crown from 1053 on.

Edward the Exile landed in England early in 1057, laden with a vast treasure. But very soon afterwards he was dead, suddenly and mysteriously, and was buried in St Paul’s before he had even met Edward the Confessor. That he was the victim of foul play can scarcely be doubted, and on a cui bono? basis the finger of suspicion seems to point at Harold Godwinson, for whom 1057 was a lucky year, in that Leofric and Earl Ralph, two other obstacles to his supreme power, also died. Some have speculated that the absence of any mention of sickness in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, coupled with the enigmatic reference to the Exile’s not having been admitted to the king’s presence, suggests that the Godwinsons had stood between him and the king and then murdered him. But if Harold was the culprit, it seems odd that he should have backed Edward’s choice of successor and allowed his protégé Ealdred to spend so much time on the mission to bring him home. The obvious course for a machiavellian Harold would have been to send an assassin to dispose of Edward in Hungary. Since the acclamation of Edward the Atheling as heir would have put paid to William of Normandy’s chances, and he had a track record of disposing of rival claimants, it seems more plausible to detect the hand of the Normans in the mysterious death. If Harold did escort Edward back to England, that would explain the ambuscades he was said to have avoided; the one thing the sources do not tell us is who was laying the ambush, but, as with all acts of violence, it is sensible to look for the motive.34

The years 1056–58 saw Harold consolidating his hold on England, to the point where he was king in all but name. He increased the territorial holdings of his family, annexed Herefordshire to his earldom, gave East Anglia to Gyrth and created a new earldom for Leofwine which stretched from Buckinghamshire to Kent. With Tostig’s appointment to the earldom of Northumbria in 1055 when Siward died (supposedly because Waltheof was still a child), the Godwinson brothers controlled all England, nominally under Edward, except for a reduced earldom possessed by Aelfgar in Mercia. Moreover, after the deaths of Edward the Exile and Earl Ralph in the same year (1057), there was no obvious candidate apart from Harold to succeed the king, unless Duke William’s tenuous claim was to be entertained. As a further refinement to his hegemonic status, in 1058 Harold secured the second banishment of Aelfgar, who, until his death in 1062, eked out a precarious existence, part exile, part rebel, forever trying to interest Scandinavian rulers or Gruffydd of Wales in an invasion of England. After his death in 1062, the earldom passed to his son Edwin, who virtually surrendered it to Harold.35

Common sense suggests that after 1058 Harold consciously aimed at the succession and already looked forward to the time when he would be hailed as Harold II. Whether under duress, by free will, or out of apathy or fatal resignation, Edward acquiesced in Harold’s acquiring the title of subregulus or deputy king, and there was a tacit assumption in Anglo-Saxon élite circles that Harold was the Confessor’s designated successor. His name was coupled with Edward’s in public documents; vassal lords plighted their troth to king and earl; and foreigners referred to Harold not just as earl but as duke or vassal prince. But it is important to be clear that there was no formal act of succession, that Edward did not publicly associate Harold with him as co-ruler, nor did he summon the witanto endorse the earl as the next king. This may indicate Edward’s angry impotence at his figurehead role or it may simply mean that he was still hoping to beget an heir, though this seems unlikely in view of the elaborate plans for Edward the exile in 1057.36

It is plausible to assume also that Harold, secure in England, now began to look across the Channel and assess the possible threat to his future takeover from William of Normandy. There is some evidence that by the end of the 1050s Harold concluded that his policy of friendship with Flanders had been a failure and that the guiding light in Flemish policy henceforth would be a strong alliance with William of Normandy; in this respect the recognition by Pope Nicholas II of the legitimacy of William and Matilda’s marriage in 1059 looked ominous. The Godwinsons had been unpopular with the papacy throughout the decade because they held aloof from the ecclesiastical reform movement, but hitherto that factor had been balanced by Rome’s hostility towards Normandy. With Pope Nicholas as a pro-Norman pope, and the old entente between empire and papacy in tatters, Harold decided on a twin-track policy. He would make overtures to the emperor so as to constrain Flanders and would also send an embassy to Rome to try to win over Pope Nicholas; at the very least he could hope to secure some advantage by playing off the papacy against Germany.37

For this delicate mission Harold selected his brother Tostig, in whose cleverness and guile he had full confidence. As was customary in the heyday of the Godwinson brothers, Tostig was accompanied by Gyrth; as in 1051–52, these two brothers worked closely together, leaving Harold and Leofwine as the other natural pairing. Early in 1061 Tostig and his wife set out for Rome, travelling via Saxony and the upper Rhine. They were accompanied by a numerous party, including Gyrth, Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester, whom Harold had raised to the archbishopric in 1060, Wulfnig, Bishop of Dorchester, Giso, Bishop of Wells, who had accused Harold of expropriating church lands, Bishop Walter of Hereford, and Burehard, a son of the exiled Earl Aelfgar. The public part of Tostig’s mission was to get a clean bill of spiritual health for the English Church from a papacy that regarded it as corrupt, and to sort out the mess in England, where bishops were unconsecrated and senior bishops held plural holdings. Quite apart from Stigand, who had received his pallium two years before from a deposed pope (Benedict X), even though he held both Winchester and Canterbury, there was now the issue of Ealdred, who had the livings and benefices of both York and Worcester.38

Tostig’s embassy was initially a spectacular failure. Pope Nicholas seemed to go out of his way to favour the anti-Godwinson faction in the English Church and humiliate Harold’s protégés. Giso of Wells was confirmed in his bishopric, as was Walter of Hereford, but Ealdred was not given the pallium and was deposed from his episcopal rank; moreover, in the dispute over lands between the sees of Dorchester and York, the pope pointedly snubbed Ealdred by deciding in favour of Bishop Wulfnig of Dorchester. Tostig brooded on the consequences of failure. Not only would he lose face in the eyes of Harold, but he realized how dangerously isolated the Godwinsons in England were. Neither of the warring factions in Scandinavia was an ally, while the threat from William of Normandy, now in alliance with the Vatican and Flanders, seemed to go from strength to strength at the very time there was a power vacuum in northern France, with Henry I and Geoffrey Martel both recently dead.39

At this juncture Fate played into Tostig’s hands in a singular and unexpected way. On the day the English party left the Eternal City, they were ambushed on the Via Cassia (fifteen miles north-west of Rome) at the junction with the Via Clodia by the banks of the river Arrone, in the most desolate part of the Campagna, by what appeared at first to be a robber band. In fact the ‘bandit chief’ who uplifted their goods and money was a Tuscan nobleman, named Gerard, Count of Galeria, who had a political agenda of his own. He had secured the election in 1058 of Benedict X and protected him a year later when the deposed pontiff fled to Galeria. Gerard’s purpose was to make Pope Nicholas a laughing-stock and dent his credibility by a barefaced act of highway robbery within the papal domains.40

The wily Tostig at once saw how he could turn this contretemps to his advantage. He stormed back to the Vatican and demanded immediate audience with Nicholas. No doubt feigning more anger than he really felt, Tostig blustered that the hold-up was such an outrage that he would have to withhold the traditional tribute of Peter’s Pence. A conciliatory Nicholas asked what he could do to make up to the English, at which Tostig pounced and insisted on having Ealdred confirmed in the archbishopric of York. He berated the pope for his failure to guarantee the safety of travellers (this was a particular hobbyhorse of Tostig’s in his earldom) and underlined the threat to papal credibility: who would fear excommunication in England when the pope’s authority was not even respected in the environs of Rome? Nicholas took the hint. In almost his last act before his death later that year, he convoked a full synod and formally excommunicated Gerard for his contumacious highway robbery. Tostig was within an ace of returning defeated and demoralized but in the end he went home to a hero’s welcome from his brother.41

With Tostig’s return from Rome in late 1061, Harold felt reasonably confident that his ecclesiastical and foreign policies were working. It was time to deal decisively with the Welsh problem, for when Aelfgar died in 1062 Gruffydd ap Llywelyn let it be known that the English peace had died with him. Harold counterattacked by having Aelfgar’s teenage son Edwin appointed to the earldom of Mercia – a shrewd move which seemed to destroy at a stroke Gruffyd’s fifth column in England; a boy earl, even if he had the freedom and inclination, could not deliver to the Welsh the level of armed support Aelfgar was used to providing. But Harold also had the long-term aim of destroying the power base of Aelfgar’s teenage sons Edwin and Morcar, by depriving them in the future of any possible Welsh alliance.42

At his Christmas court at Gloucester at the end of 1062, King Edward decided to deal with Gruffydd in the same way he had dealt with his southern namesake: he would despatch a commando squad of assassins to surprise him at his palace of Rhuddlan on the river Clywd in North Wales. Harold was put in command of a crack cavalry force, deemed large enough to sweep away any immediate opposition; concentration of Welsh forces would be avoided by using the element of surprise. Harold made a forced march to the north-eastern frontier of Wales, and by the speed of his approach in the depths of midwinter came upon the enemy unawares. By the narrowest of margins Gruffydd escaped the dragnet and Harold had not the military resources to pursue him through snowdrifts and lakes of ice; he contented himself with burning down his palace, destroying his fleet and leaving his ships as blackened hulks before returning to Gloucester.43

During the spring of 1063 Harold planned a much more ambitious punitive expedition; this time there would be two invading armies, one of them under Tostig’s command, and the navy would play a major role, preventing the escapes by sea which had been so notable a feature of Gruffydd’s career. In May Harold sailed with the fleet to Bristol, disembarked his army and invaded South Wales; Tostig entered North Wales, having marched from Northumberland; the fleet ravaged the Welsh coastline and blocked all exit points. The two brothers met in mid-Wales and began a systematic policy of devastation, avoiding pitched battles but wearing the enemy down by a war of attrition. Harold showed his calibre as a captain by his imagination and ingenuity: he had his housecarls lay aside their heavy armour and fight as irregulars or rangers. For three months savage fighting ensued, with no quarter given by either side. When the Welsh sent him severed heads to make it plain that they would take no prisoners, Harold met violence with violence; every Welsh male who resisted by so much as a flicker of an eyebrow was summarily executed.44

After three months of this, the Welsh will to fight snapped. Gruffydd’s followers turned on him, declared him outlaw, offered hostages to Harold and treated for terms with some desperation. In return for the decapitation of so many of his soldiers Harold demanded of the Welsh that they bring him the head of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn; in August, after pursuing Gruffydd into the wilds of Snowdonia, they brought it to him. Harold then imposed harsh terms: the annexation of large tracts of eastern Wales to England; the giving of hostages and the taking of mighty oaths; and acceptance of an annual tribute. But there were no reprisals once the Welsh accepted these terms, and Harold proved himself well capable of tempering victory with mercy. He divided North Wales between Gruffydd’s half-brothers Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, after taking oaths and hostages from them guaranteeing their loyal vassalage to Edward.45

Harold’s reputation was now at its apogee, and people wondered how the conquest of Wales, hitherto considered an impossibility, had been achieved so easily. Gruffydd’s death released the genie of Welsh centrifugalism from the bottle so that a nation, formidable in arms until that point, disintegrated into a confused factionalism of petty princelings and local warlords. Just to make sure Wales would never again threaten Anglo-Saxon England, Harold built himself a primitive castle or ‘hunting seat’ at Portskewet in Gwent, South Wales. He proposed to the English witan a new law whereby any Welshman found in arms on the English side of Offa’s Dike should have his right hand chopped off. To balance this, and show that he would be merciful and conciliatory if the Welsh obeyed his rules, Harold tried to make up to Wales for the terrible manpower losses it had sustained in the 1063 war by persuading Edward to lift the ban on intermarriage between Welsh women and English men. To give an example, Harold announced that he would be taking Gruffydd’s widow Ealdgyth as his wife.46

Harold’s stunning victory in Wales showed clearly that the Anglo-Saxon military machine was in full working order and was in no way inferior in discipline, equipment and technology to any European force it might have to fight against. Anglo-Saxon England was at least as powerful, sophisticated and technologically competent as Normandy. It was better administered than most of the duchies and kingdoms of western Europe, and its political unity, economic growth and stable government made the realm of Edward the Confessor one of the premier states of the mid-eleventh century. Any force of invaders, whether from Scandinavia or the European mainland, was always going to find an army led by Harold Godwinson a tough nut to crack.47

The manpower available to an Anglo-Saxon commander-in-chief was normally in the 8,000–10,000 men range, though it is possible, given a total population of two millions, that an exhaustive conscription could have raised as many as 60,000. The troops available to the king and his commander ranged from the élite warriors of his household and those of his earls to the rawest rustic levies. For this reason a ruler tended to make use of the ‘selective fyrd’ – a force of professional noble warriors – rather than the ‘great fyrd’ – a kind of eleventh-century equivalent of the levée en masse. The monarch would supplement his own forces with those of provincial earls and contingents from bishoprics and abbeys and only in emergency would he call up the county forces composed of the peasantry.48

A huge gulf in fighting quality yawned between the raw levies of the ‘great fyrd’, used for garrisoning boroughs, defending coastlines and purely local operations, and the seasoned troops a general took with him on an offensive campaign against the enemy. This was not just a question of training and morale or professional as against amateur. More saliently, the rising cost of warfare and the expense of armour consolidated the key social division between those who fought and those who laboured on the land. To some extent this distinction correlates with the differences between the personal obligations of lords and thegns to the king and the territorial obligation, based on ‘hides’, relating land to military service.49

The shire levies were set low – in Berkshire, for instance, one soldier was owed for every five ‘hides’ of land (a hide was 120 acres) – which meant that England’s 70,000 ‘hides’ produced just 14,000 men. How low a levy this was can be gauged from an examination of Berkshire, where roughly one soldier was owed for every twelve families. The strict hide system meant that even with a population of two millions, 70,000 hides produced roughly one soldier for every hundred inhabitants. All men liable to military service had to fight on sea or land as required, for in the Anglo-Saxon forces no distinction was made between army and navy (except at the very highest levels, where housecarls were differentiated from sailors or lithsmen), and all ‘hosts’ were amphibious. It is not hard to see that in a dire emergency this figure of 14,000 could be quadrupled, though in the short term it was very difficult to call out more than 10,000 men.50

But the success of the late Anglo-Saxons in battle depended overwhelmingly on the élite caste of warriors attached to king and earls – the housecarls. Originally Scandinavian mercenaries not wholly unlike the Varangians in the service of the emperor at Byzantium, the housecarls first came to prominence under Cnut, when it was estimated there were just under a thousand in the royal service. At first they were mercenaries who were stationed in towns where they carried out garrison duties; later they were used as tax collectors; and finally they became the strong right arm of the noble or royal household. The housecarls were the crack troops of the Anglo-Saxon army and as such were the equivalent in England of the knights in Normandy.51

Scholars have puzzled over the nuances of the housecarls’ position. Were they a kind of landless thegn? How did they differ, if at all, from the continental type of mercenary? They seem at once personal retainers in a royal household, professional warriors and tax collectors, sometimes appearing as an esoteric masonry of mercenaries with its own guild and rulers, at others beneficiaries of the danegeld and minor landowners. It seems that, though most housecarls were not landowners, some were, so that a purely military/landowning division of housecarl/thegn will not suffice; the most likely explanation is that ‘housecarl’ was a word also used to denote a thegn or landowner of foreign (usually Danish) descent. As for the housecarl/mercenary distinction, the key difference was that the housecarl was tied to his employer by the bond of lordship rather than the cash nexus, as with the mercenary proper; housecarls were paid, it is true, but their wages were an accidental rather than essential part of their service. By their lords in turn they were highly prized, even though the expense of feeding, clothing, lodging and arming them was considerable. Two pieces of evidence point to the supreme value put on them. The law ordained that killing a housecarl was a grave offence, which the king could punish by laying waste the lands of the perpetrators. And by 1066 significant portions of the Crown’s regular revenues were being earmarked for the upkeep of the king’s housecarls.52

The housecarls’ traditional method in battle was to fight on foot from behind a shield-wall. It is quite clear that, although Anglo-Saxons rode horses to battle and would mount up after a victory to pursue a routed foe, they did not use them, Norman-style, as warhorses; lacking a policy of selective horse-breeding, they hardly could, since archaeological remains show Anglo-Saxon horses as scarcely larger than ponies. But it would be an egregious error to assume from this that in any armed conflict between Saxon and Norman the latter was certain to emerge victorious; the facile theory of technological supremacy via the warhorse in the eleventh century has been discarded by the best authorities.53

It is often said that the shield-wall was based on the Roman testudo or turtle and, though true in general, this proposition must be stated with care. The most fearful weapon of the housecarls was their terrible two-handed battle-axe, and if they were standing too close together they could not wield it. In fact the axemen fought in combat groups, protected by swordsmen and javelin throwers. For this reason the housecarls did not lock their shields together as in the testudo and for this reason too we may doubt the authenticity of the Bayeux Tapestry when it shows Saxons fighting with kite-shaped shields. Had the housecarls massed together behind a carapace of kite-shaped shields, they would have found the shields too narrow to form a ‘wall’ and would additionally have been unable to swing their axes. An unbroken front could, on the other hand, have been provided by the use of traditional German wooden shields (some as large as ninety centimetres in diameter), equipped with an iron bar which provided protection for the hand grip on the other side.54

The housecarls had learned from the mistakes of previous Anglo-Saxon armies, and especially from the débâcle at Maldon in 991 when Byrhtnoth had been so signally defeated by the Vikings under Olaf Tryggvason. In that battle the Saxons had fought without byrnies or helmets against better-armed opponents and had been forced to avoid close-order combat where swords could be used. Ethelred the Unready seems to have taken his time to deduce the obvious lesson, but in 1008 he ordered the production of helmets throughout England, one for each man eligible to be raised under the hide system. Equipped with helmets, powerful shields and a two-handed axe that could scythe clean through a man with one well-aimed blow, the housecarl in the shield-wall was supremely well placed to acquit himself efficiently in hand-to-hand combat.55

Anglo-Saxon tactics depended on adamantine cohesion in the shield-wall, which in turn depended on morale. Victory could turn into defeat if lack of discipline led men to break rank in pursuit of loot, if a contingent deserted or if a leader was killed in battle. Provided none of these things happened and morale held, it was difficult, to say the least, for an enemy to make any inroads. But it would be a mistake to think of the shield-wall as a static, ponderous, bristling porcupine. Anglo-Saxon armies were trained to deploy in open order, each man about six feet from his comrades, to hurl spears, fire arrows or wield axes, then to close up again when a clash with the enemy was imminent. In close-order mêlée the housecarls’ main weapons were their shields and long ‘winged’ thrusting spears, used like poleaxes, and the aim was the disruption of the foeman’s line. As death depleted the front ranks, solid formations were prised open, allowing space for warriors to hurl spears, slash with swords or parry thrusts with shields.56

Despite the prominence given in traditional battle accounts to the two-headed axe, it was really the thrusting spear that was the housecarls’ primary weapon. There were three main kinds of spear: a throwing javelin with a barbed blade (to prevent easy removal); pikes for thrusting and piercing; and the favoured leaf-shaped weapons suitable both for piercing and for lateral blows. Bows and arrows were also available, the bows being cut from a single wooden stave, from yew, dwarf-elm, ash, holly or hazel. Archers were used to soften up an opposing army and, although there was no intrinsic inferiority in their capacity in this area, all the evidence suggests that the Anglo-Saxons neglected archery, though some troops carried bows with which they could reuse the opponent’s fallen shafts. It is anachronistic to import the longbow of Crécy and Agincourt into this era: at Hastings and other battles of this period bows were drawn to the chest only, not, as with the later longbow, to the ear. Some say that the need to carry spears cut down on the numbers of arrows the housecarls could carry into battle, and others that there was not yet any tradition of the yeoman archer; those with the economic surplus to learn specialized skills disdained bowman-ship, while the raw levies of the fyrd lacked the margin to learn the craft.57

The sword was still the aristocratic weapon par excellence. Archaeological evidence from Anglo-Saxon graves shows spears outnumbering swords by about twenty to one, which confirms literary evidence pointing up the sword as the symbol of noble status. The Anglo-Saxon sword was a broad double-edged weapon weighing about three pounds, easy to wield and control because of the balance between the length of the blade and the weight of the pommel; with a hard and flexible steel blade about three feet in length, it was wielded with one hand and intended for cutting and slashing rather than thrusts.58 Sword in hand, Harold Godwinson, together with his brothers and their noble allies, was sanguine that he would always have the numbers, fighting spirit, morale and sheer warrior calibre of their housecarls to see off any enemy that menaced England. And as long as the kingdom remained united, there was every basis for his belief. But at the very end of Edward’s reign, a series of unexpected events suddenly changed everything.

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