Post-classical history



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THE YEAR 1064 saw the three greatest warriors of Western Europe at their apogee: William of Normandy had conquered Maine, captured le Mans, sacked Mayenne and built castles at Mont Barbet and Ambrières; Harold Godwinson had provided a definitive solution to the military problem of Wales, and Harald Hardrada had won his most shattering victory yet over Svein Estrithson of Denmark. The increasing power of William seemed paralleled by the steady rise of Harold Godwinson, but where the two Harolds looked forward to an era of peace the restless William was already casting envious eyes across the Channel. His conquest of Maine meant there would be no problems in northern France if he launched an adventure overseas: the Angevins were locked in a civil war over the succession, the Capetian king Philip I was a minor and a ward of the Count of Flanders, and the house of Vexin had passed into the tame hands of Ralph of Creps, Count Walter and his wife Biota having died in mysterious circumstances.1

Harald Hardrada, however, did not yet have motive or opportunity to turn his attention to England. One of the reasons he ratified the lifetime peace treaty with Svein Estrithson was that he found himself in the years 1064–65 with a major internal revolt on his hands. To display their loyalty to the exiled Hakon Ivarsson, the people of the Oplandene (the Uplands, roughly corresponding to modern Kristian and Hedemarken), where he had been earl, insisted on paying their land dues, scatt and court mulcts to him in Sweden. This was a direct challenge to Harald’s authority which he could not ignore, but the king estimated that he could not subdue the Uplands while Hakon was still at large. He therefore decided to invade Sweden in pursuit of him, even if this meant war with King Steinkel.

Harald’s plan was to take Hakon by surprise in a winter campaign and ambush him in Gotland. He began by portaging his ships across country to Lake Vaner and then rowed east across the lake, hoping to catch his adversary completely by surprise. At the other side of the lake he left a strong party to guard the ships and advanced overland, trekking through snowdrifts and along frosty narrow paths. Hakon and the Swedes, however, were forewarned, so that the two armies came face to face across an icefield. For most of the day the two hosts stood shivering, waiting for the other to make the first move. Then, one hour before dusk, Harald ordered his men forward; there was a brisk skirmish which the Norwegians won; Hakon’s standard was captured but the earl himself got away under cover of night. The next day, messengers came from the ships to report that they were in danger of being iced in for the winter. Harald was forced to retreat to Lake Vaner and with great difficulty free his vessels from the ice; with even more difficulty the Norsemen finally managed to hew a channel in the ice, from which they floated out on to open water. Acknowledging the insuperable problems of winter warfare, Harald admitted defeat and returned to Norway.2

In the spring of 1065 he led a strong punitive expedition against the Uplands and implemented a scorched-earth policy, killing, maiming, burning, looting and raping wherever he went. Raumarike, Hadeland, Hedemarken and Ringerike all tasted his wrath. It is incorrect to portray the revolt of the Uplands as a peasants’ rising or rebellion by ‘primitive rebels’, but the ferocity with which it was suppressed shows that Harald regarded it as a serious threat to his position. To those who reproached him for atrocities, he liked to reply that he was acting no differently from St Olaf in similar circumstances. Much blood and treasure had to be expended before the Uplands came to heel, and the revolt took eighteen months (from mid-1064 to late 1065) to put down.3

Further uncertainty was engendered when Thorfinn died in the Orkneys in 1065. In the Orkneys proper he was mourned but in the Shetlands and Faroes the news of his demise was greeted with relief; the territories conquered by Thorfinn soon split off under local warlords. Thorfinn’s death worried Harald, for there was always the possibility that his successors would try to repudiate the Norwegian overlordship which Thorfinn had accepted in 1048 – and the possibility was all the more real as his son Paul was married to a daughter of Hakon Ivarsson. Paul, however, was counterbalanced by Thorfinn’s other son, Erlend, who objected to the dynastic link with Hakon – this issue was to cause trouble between the brothers later. Since Thorfinn bequeathed his island earldom to both sons and Erlend was disposed to renew the friendship with Harald, Paul had little choice but to acquiesce or face a civil war in which his brother would be supported by Norway. By the beginning of 1066, then, Paul and Erlend had accepted their role as Harald’s vassals.4

Far more dramatic events were taking place in the south. Some time between spring and summer 1064 the most extraordinary event occurred, whose precise nature has baffled historians ever since: for reasons obscure William and Harold Godwinson came face to face and spent many weeks together. Norman propaganda asserts that King Edward sent Harold to Normandy to promise William the succession; the Anglo-Saxon version is that Harold ended up in Normandy for quite other reasons but was coerced by William into entering into an agreement that was unsatisfactory to him; the most sceptical view is that no visit ever took place at all or that, if it did, it was at an earlier period, possibly in connection with Harold’s other European diplomatic ventures.

Those who accept the truth of the visit in 1064 all agree that, whether Harold’s real destination was Normandy or somewhere else, he was wrecked on the coast of Ponthieu in north-eastern France, a small, nominally independent enclave, whose ruler owed fealty to William of Normandy. In 1064 the ruler of Ponthieu was Count Guy, brother to the Enguerrand who was killed at the battle of St-Aubin on 25 October 1053; Enguerrand had married Adelaide, an illegitimate daughter of Duke Robert, and was thus brother-in-law to Duke William of Normandy. Guy commenced an incumbency that was prolonged by the standards of the age: he did not die until 1100, by which time Duke William and his successor were both dead. His career can be traced with reasonable accuracy: he became a vassal of William’s in 1055, attended the coronation of Philip I of France in 1059 and was infamous as an insatiable plunderer of the abbey of Saint-Riquier.5

Ponthieu was also notorious as a centre for wrecking – by the custom of Lagan, dating from Charlemagne and practised also in Vimieu and Normandy, the local lord had absolute rights over shipwrecks, the hapless victims and their goods – and there is a suggestion that Harold was a victim of false lights put out by professional wreckers. Sailing from Bosham, Harold’s ships were driven by a sudden storm to the coast of Ponthieu, where they ran aground, at the mercy of people who thought nothing of using imprisonment and torture to extract the maximum ransom. A Norman fisherman, who recognized Harold, having seen him once before in one of the fishing ports on the south coast of England, tipped off Guy that among those taken was a man worth a ransom of £100 in his own right. Guy rode to the coast and had Harold imprisoned in fetters at the inland fortress of Beaurain near Hésdin in the Pas de Calais.6

One of Harold’s party escaped and made his way to William at Rouen, where he explained his master’s parlous situation. William at once sent couriers by fast post-horse to demand that Guy of Ponthieu surrender Harold to him, threatening the direst penalties if Guy did not obey. At an earlier stage in his career Guy had sampled the rigours of William’s dungeons and had no wish to repeat the experience. He at once released Harold and rode with him to the rendezvous appointed by William at Eu, and was rewarded for his compliance with a gift of money to the putative value of the ransom and a manor on the Eaulne.7

From having so recently been a fettered prisoner, Harold was now William’s honoured guest and received a splendid reception in Rouen, where a tournament was put on for his honour, and he was introduced to William’s family. There was even a legend that William used to retire early to bed, leaving Harold and Matilda alone, so that the guileful duchess could work her wiles on Harold and make him over to the Norman cause. Harold is also said to have promised to marry one of William’s daughters when she came of age and to have pledged a sister of his own (previously unknown), named Aelfgifu, to a marriage with a Norman noble. Harold, whether genuinely charmed or only too uncomfortably aware that he was a virtual prisoner, appeared beguiled by all the attention lavished on him and agreed readily enough when William suggested that he accompany him on a campaign against Brittany.8 It would be of a piece with the psychology of ‘making over’ if William flattered Harold by saying that the fame of his Welsh victories had preceded him and that the Normans felt privileged to have with them such an expert in subduing Celts by warfare. What was to prevent him repeating against Conan of Brittany the tactics he had used so brilliantly against Gruffydd of Wales?

Brittany at the time was riven by civil war, for Conan was beset by rebels under Rivallon, who seized Dol in William’s name, thus allowing the duke to intervene treacherously; Conan was forced to seek the help of Geoffrey of Anjou, nephew of the far greater Geoffrey Martel, and tried to turn the tables by penning Rivallon up in Dol. William’s motives were, in the short term, to resolve a continuing struggle for mastery over Mont St-Michel and, in the long term, to make sure there was no powerful enemy in his rear when he finally launched his planned invasion of England. Harold’s presence on such a campaign therefore contained more than a little bitter irony, but he swallowed his distaste and even displayed spectacular heroism by rescuing some Norman soldiers from quicksands near Mont St-Michel. As the Norman army approached Dol, Conan raised the siege and retreated to Rennes. The triumph was short-lived, for Rivallon was soon complaining that the Norman army did nothing but waste his substance. After a month William himself pulled out of Brittany, but the war continued. There was a ferocious siege of Dinan, which seems to have ended when the Normans used their old method of circumventing a stubborn defence by shooting blazing arrows into the town.9

Harold and William returned to Bayeux, where it was alleged that Harold then took an oath of fealty to the duke. Nothing is more controversial than this so-called oath; it is so mired in argument and obscurity that not even the primary sources can agree where it took place, with some asserting that the venue was Bayeux, others Rouen and still others Bonneville. If an oath was administered, wherever this happened, there is then further controversy about its content and meaning. The only thing that all ‘oath’ sources can agree on is that Harold promised to marry into William’s family; beyond this it is variously asserted that he promised to be William’s man in England, to promote his claim to the throne and to receive him as Edward’s successor when the Confessor died.10

To make sense of this farrago, we have to ask first: why did Harold go to Normandy in the first place? Assuming the story to be true, we are left with three possibilities. Harold may have gone at Edward’s prompting and behest to offer the succession to William or to confirm an offer already made. In this case, two further questions arise: when was the alleged offer made: in 1042, 1051 or at some other time? And why would Harold meekly go on such an errand? The second possibility is the so-called ‘accident’ theory. It is possible that Harold had no intention whatever of visiting Normandy, that he was travelling to the Continent on some other diplomatic mission and was blown to the coast of Ponthieu by a storm. Alternatively, he may simply have been on a fishing trip or pleasure cruise and suffered the same fate. Finally, and most plausibly, it is conceivable that Harold went to Normandy to ransom hostages taken from the Godwin family by William at some time in the past.

There are so many weighty objections to the theory that Harold went to Normandy as Edward’s agent to confirm the succession for William that it seems surprising that the idea is still taken seriously. There seem to be only two occasions when Edward could have offered the succession to William: either before his own accession in 1041, when he was still in Normandy, or in 1051 during the crisis with the Godwins, when William is alleged to have visited England. We know that Edward was enraged at his treatment when in exile in Normandy and clearly would not have made such a request out of ‘gratitude’ and certainly not to an untried fourteen-year-old boy whom Edward scarcely knew. If he made the promise under duress it was invalid, but it would anyway have been meaningless, for he was not king then; furthermore, even if he had been king then, he could not have nominated his successor without the endorsement of the witan. If, on the other hand, he made the promise in 1051, and we can get over the almost insurmountable objections to the idea of William’s presence in England at the very moment he was fighting for his life in Normandy, where are the charters containing the names of the alleged witnesses and co-guarantors of a Norman succession: Leofric, Stigand, Siward and Godwin? The truth is that the entire story of a succession promise in 1051 is a clumsy and obvious ex post facto rationalization by Norman propagandists, who jumbled up a number of names chosen without regard for chronology and plausibility (at the time of the supposed promise Godwin was in exile and could not have been a witness).11

Whatever vague promises Edward made in 1051 in the heat of his battle with the Godwin family he soon laid aside, as his choice of Edward the Atheling in 1057 shows plainly. If Edward had wanted William as his indefeasible successor, he had many clear options: he could have announced it formally, he could have invited him to be an associate king, he could have crowned him in his own lifetime, or he could surely have put him in possession of some castle or key stronghold in England. If Edward wanted William as his successor, he would at the very least have exchanged gifts and hostages, and would certainly have surrendered Edward the Atheling to Normandy as an earnest of his intentions. In Edward’s eyes, and those of the rest of Europe, he would have been doing William a favour, so where were the gifts and rewards, the oaths and the hostages, from William to Edward that we would expect in such a case? Such an exchange would be mandatory if we could but once suspend our disbelief at the notion that Edward’s honour would be enhanced by nominating a bastard count as his successor.12

Every rational assumption works against the theory of an offer of the succession by Edward to William in 1064. Norman apologists say that Edward made the offer because he felt he was dying, but in 1064 there was no sign that Edward was near death. The only other circumstance that might have made the machiavellian Edward make even a half-promise to Normandy was a threat from Scandinavia, of which there was less sign in 1064 than there had been in the whole of his reign. And every single normal assumption made by this theory turns out to be implausible. It assumes three things, all of them false: that Harold and Edward were on excellent terms, and that Harold would willingly carry out the king’s bidding against his own interest; that Harold had no designs on the crown himself; and that Edward thought he had no such designs. Most unfortunate of all for the theory is the evidence from the Bayeux Tapestry which shows Edward imploring Harold not to go to Normandy.13

The only interpretation allowing Edward to have offered the succession to William in 1064 and Harold to have played along with his game requires us to impute deep motives of psychopathology to both men. Harold and Edward may simply have been playing games, enjoying making a fool of William. Harold by this time clearly saw himself as Edward’s successor, was remarkably devious, and moreover wished to know William’s likely reactions in the event of his own coronation. According to one version of the story, Harold was blown off course while fishing, but it may be that he had gone fishing in a metaphorical sense, dangling some vague pledge of friendship before William in order to draw him out and discover how seriously he had set his heart on the English throne.

Edward, for his part, may have colluded with Harold’s machiavellian designs out of the bitterness and deep anger of his secret soul. A man of sudden whims and cruel humour, Edward had already revealed his mad streak in 1051 when he demanded of Godwin that he restore his murdered brother Alfred to life. It is not impossible that Edward encouraged Harold to visit Normandy in 1064 out of a mood of sheer malevolence, avenging the ‘slights’ he had suffered in Normandy by amusedly observing William’s raised hopes and eventual discomfiture. Alternatively, he may have been working out his anger against both Harold and William by encouraging a mutual hatred that he had triggered in the first place. Some sources say that Edward promised to marry William’s sister Adelaide when she was still a child, then jilted her for Edith, daughter of Godwin, which was the original cause of a long latent anatagonism between William and the house of Godwin. If all this is rather far-fetched, it represents the only hope of rescuing the Norman story that Harold came from Edward to William with an offer of the throne. As Freeman well remarked: ‘The tale that Edward sent Harold or that Harold consented to go, on an errand which shut out himself and every other Englishman from all hope of succession to the crown, is simply absurd and impossible.’14

A surprising amount of credence has been given to the ‘accident’ theory – that Harold found himself in Normandy against his will after a chapter of unforeseen and unwelcome occurrences. In favour of the idea is the circumstantial fact of Harold’s imprisonment by Guy of Ponthieu – something he would surely not have dared to do if it was already known that Harold was on his way to Normandy as part of a formal embassy. What, then, was Harold doing according to this version? Some have suggested a fishing or hunting trip that went wrong – Freeman mentions that Harold took hawks and dogs with him – but this makes no sense. In the eleventh century humans (rightly) feared the power of the sea and would not have boarded ship to find hunting terrain they could easily have found by a cross-country journey. Moreover, all the sources indicate that Harold sailed from Bosham, which again makes no sense if he was hunting or fishing; accordingly, it is further suggested that he might have sailed from Wales instead, thus making the story even more improbable.15

Much more plausible is the idea that Harold set out on a tour of European states to gauge the likely reaction if he succeeded Edward as king and found himself, as a result of storms and wrecking, in the one court he had had no intention of visiting. In a tricky situation, and knowing William’s unsavoury way with state prisoners, Harold would then have extricated himself with difficulty by taking some form of oath to be William’s man. An ingenious variant on this is that Harold in 1064 still intended to press the claims to the succession of the fourteen-year-old Edgar the Atheling but, alerted by what he saw in Normandy to the scale of William’s ambitions, became concerned that Edgar would not have the authority and strength to resist a Norman counter-claim. The year 1064, then, so far from being a year when Harold furthered his pre-existing designs on the throne, could have been the very moment when Harold decided he had no realistic alternative to seizing the crown for himself.16

By far the most likely explanation for Harold’s presence in Normandy in 1064 was that he attempted to ransom two of his kinsmen sent as hostages to William by Edward in 1051 during the crisis with Godwin. We have already examined the circumstances in which Wulfnoth, youngest son of Godwin, and Hakon, son of Swein Godwinson, were probably taken to Normandy in 1051, and it is a fair inference that in that case William double-crossed Edward and refused to let him have the hostages back in 1052 when the Confessor was reconciled with Godwin. Wulfnoth certainly passed into Norman hands at some stage, since he was released by William only in 1087 as part of a deathbed amnesty, though it cannot be stated with certainty that it was in 1051. If this was the reason for Harold’s journey, his strategy was high-risk, since a request for the return of his kinsmen after such a long period in captivity could presumably mean only that Harold was planning some stroke which would not redound to William’s benefit; William was the exact opposite of naïve and would have been alerted by such an embassy.17

It is only fair to state that there are serious difficulties with the ‘hostage’ theory also, to the point where some have considered it a tall story. Wulfnoth and Hakon are shadowy figures who barely exist outside this particular context; Hakon’s status is particularly shaky since Swein Godwinson is not known to have had any progeny, though this objection is by no means decisive. The most serious strike against the theory is the initial action by Guy of Ponthieu, though he may not have known the true identity of his prisoners. The waters have been further muddied by writers like Freeman, who made the absurd suggestion that Harold took Wulfnoth and Hakon with him in 1064 (for what purpose?). Freeman may, however, have been on firmer ground, in his theory that a sister of Harold’s named Aelfgifu was among his party; there is an unexplained cryptological mystery about the presence of a woman named Aelfgifu in the Bayeux Tapestry that no one has been able to clear up satisfactorily.18

In the whole of this singular story, where one riddle begets simply another enigma, nothing is more singular than the affair of the oath. There is confusion in the sources about what exactly this bound Harold to, what was its moral, legal, juridical or theological force, and even when and where the alleged oath was administered. As described in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio the famous oath is simply a pact of mutual assistance, such as that previously sworn between Cnut and Edmund or Harthacnut and Magnus. The only common point in all the sources is a possible betrothal of Harold to one of William’s kinswomen.

Norman propaganda converted this into a solemn oath of fealty whereby Harold agreed to support William as the next king of England. Various details are adduced: Harold was said to have agreed to be William’s proxy at Edward’s court, to secure him the succession, and to garrison Dover and other key places against the day of his coronation. The promise was said to have been sealed when William bestowed on Harold the Norman order of knighthood and, in an even more absurd extension of the legend, after Harold had been tricked into swearing a mighty oath on a chest full of holy relics; according to the tall story, these were concealed under a cloth and then revealed to Harold once he had taken the oath.19

There is no need to labour the point that the entire story about the oath is a tissue of confusion, a mélange of different propagandist traditions. The Norman ‘historians’ cannot agree where the oath was supposed to have taken place – whether at Rouen, Bayeux or Bonneville-sur-Touques – or even whether it was administered before the Brittany campaign or after it. Nor can they escape from the dilemma that their story fails once we pose a simple question: was the ceremony public or private? To be binding in any meaningful sense, it would have to have been public, yet we know it cannot have been, for otherwise the ‘authorities’ would know where it took place. If it was private, it was a meaningless pledge unless backed by the usual exchange of hostages; yet William actually released one of the hostages, Hakon, to Harold instead of demanding further sureties.20

The other dilemma from which the propagandists cannot escape is this: either the oath was meaningful, in which case it was taken under duress and thus Harold was relieved of all moral culpability for breaking it; or it was trivial, in which case nobody expected it to be kept. The likelihood is that there was no ‘oath’ at all, but merely a frivolous gentleman’s agreement that Harold would marry William’s daughter or some other Norman noblewoman; this was then accompanied by a formal act of homage, which William was later able to present as a full-blooded oath. Any other interpretation stretches credulity to snapping point, especially since oath-taking was unusual in Norman society, with only three oaths by vassals being recorded in the whole of Norman history to 1066. As a noted authority on Norman law has commented: ‘William of Poitiers’s passage on Harold Godwinson’s homage to Duke William is the only extended description of homage and fealty and the only mention at all of investiture in this context.’21

To make any sense out of the entire incident we have to look at the psychology of the participants. William may well have been playing a double game – extracting from Harold an oath he knew could not be kept so as to derive a clear propaganda advantage: when he invaded England, he wanted to be able to present his aggression as a ‘crusade’ against a perjurer. It may well be that the ‘oath’ was nothing more than a temporary agreement that Harold would be William’s man for the duration of the Breton campaign out of gratitude for his release from the clutches of Guy of Ponthieu. Even if the ‘oath’ was an agreement to marry William’s daughter, once Harold went back on that agreement it was open to William to implement a double-cross, by claiming that implicit in the pledge to marry his daughter was Harold’s acceptance that he could hold England only as a fief for his intended father-in-law. Harold, we know, had a reputation for being too facile in his approach to oaths and agreements, and his cynicism (or fear of the consequences if he refused) almost certainly led him to an ill-advised informal agreement which played into William’s hands.22

Several points may be in order at this juncture, in ascending rank of importance. First, early medieval grandees made and unmade promises with great alacrity, seldom in expectation that they would have to be fulfilled; the gentleman’s agreement meant little in this era. Harold may well have returned from England and simply forgotten all about his pledge to marry William’s kinswoman. Secondly, and allied to this in meaning, is the fact that relations between lords and vassals, even when supposed to be binding, were remarkably fluid, if only because often internally self-contradictory. William himself was at one and the same time in the 1050s supposed to be the man both of Edward of England and Henry of France; Malcolm of Scotland was Tostig Godwinson’s sworn brother yet did not find this an impediment to ravaging Northumbria while Tostig was absent; and Herbert of Maine achieved a kind of pièce de résistance in the field of feudal obligations by owing simultaneous allegiance to Henry of France, William of Normandy and the Duke of Anjou.23

Furthermore, the factor of duress casts a moral shadow over everything done and promised by Harold in Normandy in 1064. Let us leave on one side what he owed to gratitude or normal diplomatic punctilio. Perhaps he should still have held firm and refused to make even the vaguest of promises to William; perhaps he should have yielded neither to the alleged blandishments of Matilda nor the implicit threats of her husband; maybe he should have stood firm and risked the danger of death by poison or in a ‘hunting accident’ or avoided the temptation to make a fool of William, if that is what his intention was. Yet the moral villain of the story as traditionally related was undoubtedly William: he achieved a psychological advantage over his guest by the demonstration of the ‘road not taken’ when he rescued Harold from Guy of Ponthieu; he browbeat him into taking part in a campaign against Brittany in which he had no legitimate interest; and the entire story of trickery over sacred relics, machiavellianism over the oath and overall latent duress is of a piece with the ferocious William of Normandy we know from other sources. For Norman propaganda to attempt to brand Harold as a traitor, villain and perjurer on the basis of evidence that so manifestly does not redound to William’s favour is one of the most singular aspects of the entire 1064 incident.24

Norman propaganda was hamfisted in every way, as the ludicrous story of Edward’s promise of the crown in 1051 makes clear. William of Poitiers and his followers seemed to think that an oath extracted from Harold in some way bound the kingdom of England, even though Harold was not king and even though it was anyway the witan and not the monarch that decided on the succession.25 Perhaps the most risible part of the story is the alleged sequel, when Harold returned to England, allegedly to the reproaches of Edward, who knew that William was a hard bargainer. According to one version, Edward told Harold: ‘Did I not tell you I knew William, and that your going might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?’26 In what sense he ‘knew’ a man he had last seen twenty-five years earlier as a fourteen-year-old boy is unclear, but let us assume he meant he had observed the rise and rise of the hard and unyielding duke. Why was Harold’s attempt to bring back hostages (which is the explanation this story opts for) likely to bring calamity to the kingdom? Presumably when William detained the hostages illicitly in the first place, Edward would already have been alerted to his true ambition. It must have been clear to all that William intended to press his claim to the throne of England whatever Harold did or did not do.

At all events Harold returned to England, having definitely lost caste. He had been humiliated in Ponthieu and reduced to secondary status in Normandy. Superficially William had honoured him, by the initial release, by taking him on the Breton campaign as a companion of honour, by knighting him, giving him rich gifts on his departure and by releasing his nephew Hakon. But Harold had not secured his major objective, the freedom of his brother Wulfnoth, and the effect of his embassy was to exacerbate tension between England and Normandy. Both Harold and William must have known in their hearts that the issue between them would only ever be resolved by force of arms, and both had seen enough of the other to know what a formidable opponent he was. Yet the task ahead of William still seemed insuperable. To conquer England he would need a crack in the steely military carapace Harold presented to any would-be invader. By the most incredible good fortune, ‘William the lucky bastard’, as he has been well dubbed, was about to achieve his dearest wish.

The year 1065 was considered an ill-omened one, for it was thought that the world would come to an end when the Feast of the Annunciation coincided with Good Friday. As the old legend put it:

When Our Lord falls on Our Lady’s lap

England shall have a dire mishap.

For all that, the early months of the year seemed uneventful. Much of the spring and summer was taken up with affairs in Wales. Some English traders at Newport refused to pay the customary toll, whereupon Rhiryd, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn’s successor, had them roughed up and cut their anchor away. When the merchants reported this to Harold, he invaded Glamorgan and started building a fort at Portskewet, south-west of Chepstow. Then in August there was an even more serious incident when Caradoc, son of Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, attacked Harold’s fortress, slew many of the workers and artisans, and carried off the stores and equipment.27

Caradoc’s action is yet another mystery from the last days of Anglo-Saxon England. Would he really have ventured such a contumacious act against a man who two years before had convulsed Wales, unless he was secretly in league with some other powerful faction? Rumours of plots abounded in 1065, and in the same year there is the sudden banishment by Edward for treason of the wealthy pro-Danish clerk Spirites. The ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states clearly that the attack on Portskewet was part of a conspiracy, though sceptics reply that this chronicler finds every untoward event as part of a hidden, sinister pattern. Nevertheless, the sequence of events in 1065 suggests strongly that some sort of power struggle was going on in England, and the obvious inference is that the Spirites and Portskewet affairs denote a conflict between Harold and his party on one side and Edward, Edith and Tostig on the other.28

We know little of Edward’s personal relations with Harold, and the few hints in the sources consistently speak of men at variance on means and ends. It would scarcely be surprising if the king, reduced to a figurehead by Godwin and then further truncated in power by his eldest surviving son, should have resented and even hated the powerful and charismatic Harold. Tostig, on the other hand, he adored only just short of idolatry – an emotion in which he was encouraged by Queen Edith, whose favourite brother Tostig was. Edward’s high regard for Tostig may have combined the attraction of opposites – the weak for the ruthless, perhaps – with a genuine regard for his marital fidelity, his refusal to follow his brother Harold into promiscuous womanizing, and the large sums of money he spent on piety and good works. It is not inconceivable that both Edward and Edith played on Tostig’s vanity and encouraged him to believe that he would make a more natural successor to the throne than his more vaunted elder brother. Tostig’s marriage to Judith of Flanders, kin both to Baldwin and Edward, was the most obvious sign of an early high-flying ambition which the royal couple appear to have worked on assiduously.29

But in the struggle with Harold Tostig had a notable weak spot which was to be used against him with devastating effect: the earldom of Northumbria that he had acquired in 1055. Tostig had been made earl for three main reasons: because of the expulsion of Aelfgar for ‘treason’; because of intense lobbying by Harold and Edith; and because the obvious successor, Waltheof, Siward’s son, was a mere boy. Aelfgar, who bitterly opposed the encirclement of his Mercian family’s territory by the encroaching Godwinsons, was totally outwitted by Harold in 1055 and ended up being banished on a spurious charge of treason, though he may well have given hostages to fortune by some unwise intrigues and by wild behaviour that suggested he was another Swein Godwinson. Waltheof, on the other hand, was by no means disgraced and spent his minority full of honours and privileges.30

The appointment of Tostig as Earl of Northumbria was a new departure – the first time a scion of a Wessex family had ruled in the north – and was widely considered provocative and tactless. Since the early tenth century the north of England had been ruled by the Bamburgh family virtually on franchise from the kings of England, but since the death of Ethelred the relationship had been uneasy and violent: three of the family members, Uhtred, Eadulf and Ealdred, had been murdered on the orders of Cnut and Harthacnut as part of a continuing struggle to bring Northumbria fully under the control of the monarchs in the south. The position of the Bamburgh family was shaky but it still clung on, heartened by the knowledge that northern earls had always been either Bamburghs or Anglo-Danes and Scandinavians. Tostig’s appointment, a manifest sign of the triumphalism of the Godwinsons, changed all that.31

Tostig was notoriously strong-willed and inflexible and one of those who believed in the old maxim ‘let the heavens fall provided justice be done’. He waged a draconian campaign against the endemic crime and lawlessness of the north, but his opposition to lawlessness and corruption bordered on fanaticism, and it is easy to see how such a ‘sea-green incorruptible’ soon acquired the reputation of a tyrant. In 1055 Northumbria was in a state of near anarchy, where the only rules were those imposed by local mafias linked to the ruling families, and especially the Bamburghs. Any party of strangers less then thirty strong travelling through the earldom could be certain of ambush, plunder, rape and possibly death, and it was well known that local nobles were involved in this highway robbery and made money out of it. Tostig was adamant and pertinacious in his resolve to root out crime and corruption and was prepared to follow the trail of lawlessness however high it led and deal without mercy with the perpetrators. He began by using death and mutilation against individual offenders and progressed to the use of death squads against recalcitrant local magnates. Most of all, he abolished the laws of Cnut, which allowed blood-feud, in favour of a settled system of law over which he would preside.32

Tostig also built up a powerful bodyguard of about two hundred housecarls. This private army, needed for his own protection, added to his new system of justice administration, required money, and the earl added to his reputation for ‘tyranny’ by the zeal with which he taxed, fined, mulcted and seized church properties. As with Harold, the accusation that he was harsh against the church has to be treated with caution. What happened was that there were winners and losers when it came to Tostig’s often generous ecclesiastical benefactions, and the cries of ‘Despotism!’ by the losing abbeys and monasteries lost nothing in the telling. In trying to equalize the burden of taxation, Tostig naturally offended some, but there can be no doubt that he and his wife Judith were important patrons of the church of Durham. As with his campaign against brigandage on the highways, Tostig’s primary concern was justice and it was this that alienated the local élites. The north had traditionally been taxed much more lightly than the rest of the country, and Northumbrian magnates had largely evaded their burden altogether; what irked them now was that Tostig had an efficient system of taxation based on equality.33

Tostig’s innovations, his new legal system, his taxation, his passion for justice, all helped alienate any putative allies in the north. As his unpopularity grew, so did his taxation demands, for he had to employ more and more men in his household to carry out his fiscal and law enforcement policies. Tostig scarcely increased his standing in Northumbria by his frequent absences from the earldom, largely in response to Edward’s impassioned requests for the presence of his great friend and confidant at his court in the south. The king himself never travelled further north than Shrewsbury, which angered the largely Scandinavian-descended people of the north; here was insult added to injury: not just a king who disdained the north but an earl who was frequently absent from Northumbria at the behest of the selfsame monarch. In his absence Tostig left the task of administration to his deputy Copsig, who was unhappily neither from the house of Bamburgh nor a member of Siward’s family. Copsig tried unsuccessfully to conciliate the clerks of Durham and attempted to curry favour with them by deposing the unpopular Bishop Aethelrig. Unfortunately, instead of leaving the choice of successor to the clerks, Copsig referred the matter to Tostig, who nominated Aethelwine, Aethelrig’s brother – in the eyes of the clerks the mixture as before and therefore unacceptable.34

The final area in which Tostig lost caste was his inability to solve the problem of Malcolm III of Scotland. Despite Edward’s support for him in 1054 against Macbeth, Malcolm proved to be a treacherous ingrate and, after he had finally disposed of Macbeth in 1057, ceased to be Edward’s tame client king and began raiding across the border into Northumbria, stealing cattle, carrying off men and women as slaves, uplifting goods and garnering booty. From the Scots’ point of view Malcolm was merely doing what was expected of a warrior king, but his incursions were worrying, since they challenged the credibility of Tostig at the very moment that he was engaged in a power struggle with the old élites of Northumbria. Encouraged initially by the selfsame fissiparous politics of the earldom, Malcolm began by testing Tostig’s intentions with minor military probes. Tostig responded by a series of Fabian campaigns, taking care not to waste his manpower in pitched battles, but intending to wear Malcolm down with a war of attrition; at the same time he put out peace feelers.35

In 1059 Tostig’s long game paid off, or at least did so in the short run. After the exchange of a number of increasingly important envoys, Tostig journeyed north of the border in company with Aethelwine, Bishop of Durham, and Kynsige, Archbishop of York. Together they persuaded Malcolm to venture into England for a summit meeting with King Edward. The subsequent negotiations were successful. Malcolm asked for the return of Cumberland, which had originally been a Scottish possession seized by the previous earl, Siward, but Edward blunted the thrust of this request with a lavish bestowal of compensatory gifts. Apparently satisfied, Malcolm withdrew, having first sworn blood-brotherhood with Tostig and pledged eternal peace as long as he was Earl of Northumbria.36

In 1061 Tostig made his famous journey to Rome to win the pallium for Ealdred, the new Bishop of York. Taking advantage of his absence, and using the spurious argument that his pact with Tostig held good only while the earl was physically present in Northumbria, Malcolm led a powerful army on a deep raid which cut a swathe through the earldom and penetrated as far south as Durham. Having laid waste Lindisfarne, Malcolm swung in an arc and ravaged Cumberland, announcing as he went that he was taking possession of ancient Scottish lands. On his return, Tostig meekly bowed to the fait accompli, accepted the loss of Cumberland, made no attempt to retaliate against Scotland and instead signed another peace treaty with Malcolm. Here was a wonderful propaganda for the powerful anti-Tostig faction in the earldom: the absentee earl, it was said, was playing high politics in Rome while grossly neglecting the province he was supposed to be governing; what price the frenzied campaign for law and order and the ordinances against brigandage when Malcolm could devastate the land without let or hindrance; and why were the men of Northumbria supposed to pay for Tostig’s burdensome tactics when he could not provide them with the most elementary military security? Tostig might well have replied that it was precisely the lack of support he enjoyed among the grandees of Northumbria that made it impossible for him to campaign against Malcolm.37

By 1064 tensions in the earldom were almost at snapping point. A furious vendetta raged between Tostig and the sons of Aelfgar, the nobility of Yorkshire was disaffected, while angry scions of the house of Bamburgh watched from the sidelines awaiting their chance. A powerful anti-Tostig faction had also arisen within the northern Church, based on the clerks of Durham and particularly associated with Bishop Aethelwine and the sacristan Elfred Weston. The overwrought emotions finally found expression in outright murder, for in 1064 two of the powerful northern magnates were assassinated: Gamel, son of Orm, and Ulf, son of Dolin. These were two of the leading lights of Northumbrian separatism and associates of Gospatric, youngest son of the earl Uhtred (son of Ethelred), previously Siward’s collaborator in Northumbria, a possible claimant to the throne and, in the eyes of most northerners, the real earl of the province.38

Finally, on 28 December 1064, Gospatric himself was murdered at Edward’s Christmas court. For all three murders Tostig was held responsible, and in the assassination of Gospatric he was said to have been materially aided (in ways unspecified) by his sister, Queen Edith. These are very deep waters indeed. Some say Edward’s agents killed Gamel and Ulf to help Tostig, but without the earl’s knowledge, and then slew Gospatric in concert with Edith. Some go further and assert that neither Tostig nor Edith was involved: Edward carried out the killings to remove possibly troublesome pretenders and ensure that his beloved Tostig succeeded to the throne. As one recent scholar has put it: ‘We may suspect that Edward himself had a part in the murder which his later reputation whitewashed, leaving Edith with the blame.’39

We are left with yet another unsolved mystery: who killed the leading lights of Northumbrian separatism and why? On a cui bono? basis the answer must be Tostig: he committed murder to take out the leaders of the opposition to his rule in Northumbria. But Edward too had his reasons for being concerned about the drift of events in the north and, as later events showed, he was implacably opposed to Northumbrian separatism; he could have rationalized his murder of the trio as raison d’état. So it is possible that either Tostig or Edward acted alone, that both colluded with Edith, or even that all three conspired together. The difficulty for the historian is that even the simplest incident involving Earl Tostig is susceptible to the most ambiguous interpretations. The Gospatric murdered at Christmas 1064 had a half-nephew, himself later an Earl of Northumbria, whom Tostig had insisted on taking with him on his 1061 pilgrimage to Rome. Does this mean that Tostig and Gospatric the younger were bonded in friendship or does it mean that Tostig took him with him as surety for his uncle’s good behaviour?40

Even more opaque is the story of Gospatric’s exploits on the journey home from Rome. The official story of the ambush outside Rome was that the heroic Gospatric, seeing Tostig’s party about to be intercepted, exhorted the earl to gallop away to safety on a fast horse, while he himself impersonated Tostig. Once Tostig had got clear away, Gospatric admitted the truth, which made the robbers so angry they at first resolved to kill him for the deception; finally, however, admiration for his courage got the better of them and they released him with their heartiest best wishes.

But others said that Tostig was not with his ambushed party but, forewarned of Gerard’s attempt, remained in Rome on ‘urgent business’, hoping that Gospatric would resist the highway robbery and be killed. The Northumbrians certainly thought it suspicious that the young Gospatric was nearly killed while supposedly under the protection of Tostig and thought back to the murder of Ealdred Bamburgh by Harthacnut’s man Carl in 1038 – a murder which had been preceded by Carl’s proposal that the two of them should go on a pilgrimage together.41

Given the iron grip of the Godwinsons on England, the events of 1065 make sense only if we postulate a severe divergence in interests and ambitions between Harold and Tostig, with Tostig secretly encouraged and abetted by Edward. We do not know why two brothers, who had collaborated so well hitherto, suddenly fell out; maybe Tostig’s contempt for Harold’s lifestyle, his envy of his brother’s advantages and latent sibling rivalry were already at boiling point when Edward whispered to him that he, Tostig, was his preferred successor. Either Tostig encouraged Caradoc to attack Harold’s fort at Portskewet or Harold thought he had and decided to retaliate in the north. Despite many provocations, the anti-Tostig party in Northumbria would not have risen without getting the green light from Harold.42

Perhaps, too, it is significant that Harold was hunting with Tostig in Wiltshire in early October 1065 when news came in of a seismic rebellion in the north. On 3 October the standard of revolt was raised in Yorkshire by a formidable coalition of thegns representing Mercia, Northumbria and Yorkshire, regions which had rarely if ever collaborated. An ad hoc junta, prominent among which were Gamelbearn, kinsman of the murdered Gamel, Dunstan, the son of Aethelnoth, and Glonicorn, son of Heardulf, began issuing decrees in defiance of Tostig. At a gemot in York the thegns utterly repudiated Tostig’s authority as earl while stressing their continuing loyalty to Edward; Tostig was declared deposed and outlaw and it was announced that Morcar, son of Aelfgar, would be the new earl. The leaders of Tostig’s Danish housecarls, Amund and Reavenswart, saw at once the extreme danger in which they were placed and fled south from York, but were overtaken on the road and summarily executed. Next day there was a bloody purge when all two hundred of Tostig’s housecarls were hunted down and massacred, after which the rebels broke open the deposed earl’s treasury and plundered it.43

Several things became plain after these two tragic days that convulsed the north. Although the flame of Northumbrian independence still burned brightly, the rebellion was a more complex phenomenon than mere localism, as was shown by the choice of Morcar as earl, a man with no obvious connections with the Anglo-Scandinavian society of the north. The obvious choice was Waltheof, Siward’s son, who was now in his early twenties and hence highly eligible, but it was plain that the house of Siward enjoyed no great popularity. It has been suggested that Morcar was a compromise candidate, since Northumbrians would not accept Waltheof nor the men of Yorkshire Oswulf, son of Earl Eadulf, and the current leading scion of the house of Bamburgh. As consolation prizes, both the rejected candidates were given sub-earldoms, Oswulf in Northumbria and Waltheof in Huntingdon and Northampton, with the clear understanding that they held their lands by Morcar’s favour.44

The rise to prominence of Morcar and his brother Edwin showed that the vendetta waged by the house of Aelfgar against Tostig had finally paid off. The choice of Morcar as the new earl can be further interpreted in a number of different ways. Did the fact that the rebels turned for leadership to another Saxon mean, as has been suggested, that they did not intend a breakaway movement from Edward’s England and still considered that their best interests lay in a united England? Or did it mean that the Northumbrians were biding their time, waiting to see what Harold Godwinson and Edward would do before finally revealing their hand? Clearly the basic Northumbrian intention, having snubbed Waltheof, Siward’s son, and chosen instead the son of one of his victims (Earl Eadulf), was to return to quasi-independence under a direct descendant of one of their ancient earls. Morcar was important to all the parties: to Oswulf and Waltheof as a means of heading off faction-fighting between their parties, which might allow Tostig to return, and to Harold (with whom Morcar presumably intrigued) as a means of preventing an independence movement in Northumbria.45

Nevertheless, it became increasingly difficult for Morcar to allege that the overthrow of Tostig represented conflict within the regime rather than an overt challenge to Edward’s authority. The much-vaunted grievances against Tostig should have been rehearsed before Edward and his witan or a witenagemot of the entire realm, so the decrees of 3 October were unconstitutional, to say nothing about the way the rebels had infringed the severe prohibitions against the killing of housecarls. Moreover, the thegns of Yorkshire had broken into Tostig’s treasury and plundered it indiscriminately, whereas, if they were claiming that Tostig’s taxes were illegal, they should have handed the money over to the new earl, Morcar, with a petition for a legal refund.46

The rebellion soon developed its own momentum. Flushed by the ease of their early successes, the rebels sent for Morcar, confirmed him as earl, and invited him to lead them south on an expedition to root out those enclaves in the vast earldom of Northumbria that were still loyal to Tostig. Morcar’s army struck south, bringing a reign of terror to the towns of Lincoln, Nottingham and Derby, killing and plundering as they went, and sweeping into their ranks many volunteers, either those genuinely caught up in the euphoria of booty and rapine, or believers in expediency who joined the winning side. At Northampton, Morcar was joined by his brother Edwin, with a large body of freebooters. Finding Northampton not very sympathetic to his aims, Morcar allowed his army to run amok: Northampton was systematically sacked, hundreds of its citizens were killed or raped, several hundred more were carried off as slaves, houses were gutted, the winter’s supplies of corn and wheat committed to the flames, and herds of cattle driven off as the spoils of war.47

The presence of large numbers of Welsh adventurers with Edwin forces one to re-examine the role of Wales in the crisis of 1065. Who were these Welshmen: mercenaries, professional desperadoes or the rump of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn’s defeated army, thirsting for revenge for the humiliation of two years before? Yet one more mystery presents itself, so that some historians have seen Morcar and Edwin as the prime movers of the crisis of 1065, acting completely independently of Harold. The Welsh alliances of Aelfgar and his sons are well known, so that it would by no means be far-fetched to see the assault on Harold’s fort at Portskewet as the action of Caradoc in collusion with Edwin and Morcar. But this would construe the 1065 rising as a frontal challenge to the power and credibility of the Godwinssons as a whole; knowing what we know of Harold, it is inconceivable that he would have ignored a challenge to Tostig if it was really a disguised form of a challenge to his own prestige.48

The sequel to the sack of Northampton certainly suggests that Harold had some secret understanding with Morcar and Edwin, if only because his military inertia contrasts so strikingly with the flair and élan he would demonstrate the following year. Harold hastened from his Wiltshire hunting lodge to Northampton with a message from the king: the rebels should lay down their arms forthwith and submit their grievances to a full assembly of the realm. The Northumbrians replied defiantly that they would lay down their arms only if Edward confirmed the banishment of Tostig and the ‘election’ of Morcar as earl. If ever the Confessor had doubts about the seriousness of the rebellion, he could entertain them no longer; the threat to his authority and the implicit hint of civil war were only too palpable.

The royal council the king assembled at Britford, near Salisbury, quickly turned into an acrimonious affair. Tostig openly charged his brother Harold with having fomented the revolt, but Harold’s faction riposted that Tostig had brought all his trouble on his own head, alienating his subjects over a decade out of insensate covetousness for the wealth of the Northumbrian magnates. Harold argued that, with so many powerful external enemies snapping at their heels, the English could not afford civil war, which would be the inevitable outcome if he tried to restore Tostig by force. Tostig, though, was adamant that Harold was duty-bound to support him, come weal or woe, for two reasons: the king’s dignity, prestige and sovereignty were at stake; and for Harold, as his brother, to fail him at this stage would be an ‘unnatural’ act. The more Harold demurred, the wilder grew Tostig’s allegations; to quieten the assembly Harold finally swore an oath that he had no part in fomenting or compassing the rebellion.49

At this point, in the teeth of the arguments by all his commanders, which ranged from the difficulties of mounting a winter campaign in the north to endorsement of Harold’s argument that what they now faced was civil war, Edward intervened to demand the defeat of the rebels by force of arms. Harold could not openly refuse to obey a direct order from the king, but he effectively sabotaged Edward by calling on a number of senior military commanders, all of whom declared to the assembly that an army sufficient for the task could not be assembled until the following spring. At this Edward became almost apoplectic with rage and called down the vengeance of the Almighty alike on those who had rebelled and those who stood in the way of their just punishment.

Harold took the obvious course to camouflage his own reluctance to act against Morcar and Edwin and persuaded the king to summon a general witenagemot of the whole realm. Edward agreed, seemingly in hopes that, in the interim, the same fate would strike Morcar and Edwin as had attended Godwin in 1051, and that the rebel army would melt away. Alas for his hopes, no such thing happened. At the meeting of the full assembly at Oxford on 28 October Harold at first fruitlessly tried to reconcile Tostig and the rebels, then conceded their demands at virtually every point: Tostig’s laws were annulled and the laws of Cnut reinstated, the illicit acts of the York gemot were validated, Morcar declared elected and Tostig deposed. Whether because as an innocent he now feared the fissiparous tendencies engendered in England, or because as a conspirator he sensed Morcar and Edwin slipping from his control, Harold extracted one concession: the shires of Northampton and Huntingdon were to be detached from Northumbria and given to Waltheof. He had now engineered a situation where the rebels were split three ways, between the factions of Morcar, Waltheof and Oswulf.50

Edward, who had all along hankered for a military solution, was said to have been so angry that he suffered a succession of minor strokes. Certainly he was never the same man again, and the humiliation he suffered at the two councils, allied to the grief he felt at having to sign the order for the exile of his beloved Tostig, effectively broke his heart. He took to his bed and never recovered. After an emotional farewell with the king, Tostig and Judith departed for exile at the court of Baldwin in Flanders.

Harold’s position is the least clear of the three. His refusal to fight Morcar and Edwin was either consummate statesmanship or part of a devious game. His apologists say that he did not want civil war for two reasons. Unlike Edward, who was always for military solutions, he had actually seen the horrors of war and was reluctant to let more blood unless he had no choice; this is part of the well-known phenomenon whereby veterans opt for peaceful solutions while those who have not experienced combat rattle sabres. Moreover, he saw only too clearly that a protracted civil war between north and south would simply play into the hands of future claimants to the English throne, and perhaps he particularly feared that if he fought the northern rebels William of Normandy would emerge as tertius gaudens (lucky third party). In a word, depending on what interpretation we put on his conduct in 1065, he was either egregiously selfish and calculating or a statesman of Solomonic wisdom.51

By the end of November 1065 Harold was aware that the king was fading fast and that the crown would soon be his. Since Edward was sick and could not hunt and since, moreover, he wanted to consecrate his new church at Westminster, he did not hold his Christmas court at Gloucester, as originally intended, but in London. The last Christmas court of the Confessor’s reign saw the greatest of the land convened in one place; all the various interests in the kingdom were represented, so that if there was significant opposition to Harold as the next king this fact would have emerged. It is probable that at this stage Harold agreed to marry Ealdgyth, widow of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and sister of Edwin and Morcar, in return for their support for his bid for the throne. It is impossible to claim that Harold’s eventual succession represented a kind of coup d’état, as the Norman propagandist William of Poitiers asserted.52

Edward sank lower on Christmas Eve – it is likely that he had another in a series of strokes – valiantly staggered through the Christmas Day ceremonies, but had to take to his bed the next day. His last public act was to be present at the consecration of the new abbey church of Westminster on 28 December. Once again he took to his bed, where Archbishop Stigand, Harold, Edith, Robert fitzMarch and other royal favourites were in constant attendance. He sank into a coma, regaining consciousness only to relate the details of an apocalyptical vision, in which he had seen England consumed by fire and sword, abandoned to the Devil and his demons because God, in his anger with the Anglo-Saxons, who would not repent of their wickedness, would not grant forgiveness. Queen Edith was greatly distressed at these revelations and thought her husband a true prophet, but the cynical Stigand whispered to Harold that the king was simply raving in a pre-death delirium.53

While Edith wept and lamented, Edward made his last will and testament in the form of the verba novissima – the last words which under Anglo-Saxon custom were the only universally recognized and valid way to dispose of goods and property. He asked God to repay his wife for her loving and dutiful service, then held out his hand to Harold and spoke as follows: ‘I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection. Remember that she is your lady and sister and serve her faithfully and honour her as such for all the days of her life. Do not take away from her any honour that I have granted her.’ Edward then made Harold protector of all his housecarls and foreign servants, asking him to give them the choice of staying on to serve the new king or returning home with full honours, pay and safe-conduct.54

Here surely was the death-knell for William’s claim that he was Edward’s clearly designated heir. All English sources make it crystal clear that Edward named Harold as his successor, but William’s apologists tried (and some do so even today) to deny the obvious, in a number of ways. Some claimed that Edward was not compos mentis and others that he was acting under duress from Harold, though what threat could be brought aginst a man already at the point of death is unclear. Still others barefacedly claimed that, in ways unexplained, the 1064 ‘oath’ overrode Edward’s deathbed bequest. A modern, quasi-legalistic argument is that Edward made Harold his executor, not his successor, but this poses the obvious question: executor in favour of whom? Edward would scarcely have appointed him an executor for an unknown beneficiary. The only pro-Norman argument with a scintilla of plausibility is the one that stresses a failure to communicate between the two cultures. In Anglo-Saxon culture a verbal promise not accompanied by physical investment did not have the force of a post obitum bequest, as it may have done in Normandy. Edward’s verba novissima bequest could only be overriden by a genuine post obitum gift to William, which Edward had not made.55

If Edward had wanted to make an irrevocable post obitum offer of the throne to William, he would have invited him to the Christmas court, since all such bequests were legitimatized by crowning the heir in the lifetime of his predecessor, by dividing the kingdom or by shared kingship, such as that of Magnus and Harald Hardrada or Edward and Harthacnut. Edward never formally invested William with kingship, and the statement in the Carmen that he sent William a sword and ring as tokens of the succession is transparent Norman propaganda. The Norman case was always based on two things: the alleged promise in 1051 and the oath in 1064. By his offer of the throne to Edward the Exile in 1051 Edward had already rescinded whatever he had said to William in 1051; and the ‘oath’ of 1064, whatever it was, was overriden by the Confessor’s novissima verba; as an English herald patiently explained to William in October 1066, for 450 years ever since the days of Augustine of Canterbury, it was settled law and custom in England that a person’s last will and testament annulled any previous pledge made by that person.56

Having incontestably named Harold as his successor, Edward died on 5 January 1066, after receiving the last rites from Archbishop Stigand, and was buried in Westminster the next day. The witan met on 5 January and confirmed Harold as king; Edwin and Morcar were among those voting for him. It is said that a few voices were raised in favour of Edgar the Atheling and someone even mentioned William, but the assembly, without faction or separatist sentiment, overwhelmingly opted for Harold. In terms ofrealpolitik Harold had no sensible alternative but to accept. If Tostig and William were to stake their claim by armed force, as seemed likely, it would be better for England to be ruled by a warrior-king in his prime with strong links to the northern earls rather than see the fifteen-year-old Edgar the Atheling grapple with the problem.57

So it was that on 6 January there took place the double ceremony of the burial of Edward and the coronation of King Harold. Norman propagandists asserted that Stigand crowned Harold king and thus increased the element of ‘illegitimacy’ in his kingship (Stigand had received his pallium from a pope who had been stricken from the records of official pontiffs), but the truth is that to avoid just such an allegation Harold had taken care to see that his friend Ealdred, Archbishop of York, officiated at the coronation ceremony. For similar reasons perhaps Stigand took no part in Edward’s funeral, where the master of ceremonies was Abbot Edwin. It has sometimes been suggested that Harold’s coronation the day after Edward’s death betokened ‘unseemly haste,’ and this is why the king’s funeral is shown before his death on the Bayeux Tapestry, but this is an anachronistic judgement. As Professor Barlow has commented: ‘It is most unlikely that anyone thought it unseemly for the funeral baked meats to furnish coldly the coronation banquet. Eleventh-century man was a realist: when he required delay it was for a practical reason. There could have been no indecent haste about a coronation.’58

Harold immediately tried to show himself the very model of a just and conciliatory king: despite their possible role as fifth columnists, he refrained from expelling the leading Normans William, Bishop of London, and Robert, son of Wymarc. Mindful of the example of Edward, who by over-reliance on the royal demesne had ended up as a figurehead king, he was determined to retain a landed base, so kept the earldom of Wessex in his own hands. His first real headache was the continuing problem of the north. He had no choice but to treat Morcar and Edwin as friends, especially as they had voted for him in the witan and he had married their sister Ealdgyth. But he knew they loved him not and harboured continuing plans for dividing the kingdom. Even stronger opposition was evinced by Waltheof and the Bamburgh family – though it remained at the level of passive resistance – but Harold had little room for manoeuvre with his northern problem, since he was even less willing to risk civil war now than in 1065; at least if he had taken the plunge then, Tostig would have been at his side. In this respect Harold can be seen as a man just as consistently unlucky as William of Normandy was lucky, for had Edward died a year earlier the whole of England would still have been in the grip of the Godwinsons.59

Displaying remarkable courage, élan and presence of mind, Harold decided to conciliate the north with a frontal diplomatic assault. Accompanied by his trusted friend Bishop Wulfstan, he travelled to York shortly before Easter 1066 and at a gemot there exhorted the assembled men of Northumbria and Yorkshire to join him in the common cause of opposition to William and Tostig. Warming to his theme that a house divided against itself must fall, he warned darkly that there were many fifth columnists in the country and may even have hinted that the reason he transacted all his business in London and no longer went to Winchester was that his sister Edith, who openly favoured Tostig and may also have been intriguing with William, had her seat there. He argued that if separatist sentiment was listened to, and the kingdom divided, it would be easy prey for invaders: Tostig and his allies could well dismember an unaided Northumbria while William was doing the same with Wessex.60

Harold’s eloquence and the patient diplomacy of Wulfstan secured him a major, if temporary, triumph. Secretly displeased with the turn of events, Morcar and Edwin had no choice but to go along with majority opinion and publicly embrace Harold as lord of the entire kingdom. It was in a spirit of some euphoria that the new king was able to hold his Easter gemot at Westminster. Yet the breathing-space was short-lived. Already William was on the move in Normandy, while the restless and turbulent Tostig seemed likely to engineer a situation where England might be menaced on four sides simultaneously: in Northumbria by Malcolm of Scotland; on the Saxon coast by Tostig himself; in Wessex by William; and in Yorkshire by a new player who had been coaxed into the drama: the mighty Harald Hardrada of Norway.

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Stamford Bridge and the campaigns leading to the battle

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