As late as the summer of 1065 King Edward was still well enough for Harold to invite him hunting in south Wales, but as the days grew colder, and the barren winter blew sharply across the land, the health of the old man deteriorated rapidly. His grand projet, his last great offering to his God, his great legacy upon which he had lavished a large fortune, was to be a new church at the abbey of Westminster, close to his riverside palace. Westminster was then situated on a little island, known as Thorney Island; it was bounded on three sides not, as now, by roads and queuing traffic, but by the slow-flowing waters of a tributary of the Thames and to the east by the Thames itself. The king's palace was situated on land where the Houses of Parliament now stand, the abbey on the site that it still occupies. From the palace you could make out the city of London, a busy agglomeration that was home to some 25,000 people. You would have seen smoke rising from its little houses, clustered around a bend of the Thames, whilst merchants' vessels with sails aloft eased their way upriver with cargoes, so the author of the Life of King Edward tells us, 'of every kind for sale from the whole world to the town on its banks'.1 The ambitious church that Edward was building at Westminster, in honour of St Peter, was to be larger than any in Christendom. It was still years from completion but the ceremony of consecration was advanced to 28 December 1065 so that the old man, supported by his walking stick or carried by servants, would be able to make the short journey from the palace and attend the moment of dedication. On Christmas Eve, however, he fell gravely ill. He recovered sufficiently to attend Christmas service in the abbey, and to be present at the banquet that followed, but on Boxing Day he was again too frail to leave his bedchamber. On the day fixed for the consecration the king's condition was found to be no better and though a great concourse 'from the whole of Britain'2 had assembled to witness a joyous occasion, the service of dedication had to proceed more solemnly in his absence. The life of the bedridden old man was edging away.
In the Bayeux Tapestry we move directly from the scene of Earl Harold's reprimand to an exterior view of the magnificent church [scene 25]. It is as if an implicit contrast is being made between Harold's well-meant foolishness and Edward's prodigious piety. At the eastern end, a workman has climbed on to the roof in order to put a weathercock in its place. Above the nave the very hand of God has descended from the heavens in a gesture of benediction. How carefully the hand of God is drawn, how skilfully the spirit of the divine has been made material. There is no room for error in the illustration of perfection. This great church is depicted as still unfinished, but it is nevertheless by far the largest building in the whole of the tapestry. It bears little relation to the Westminster Abbey known today. In the thirteenth century Edward the Confessor's elegant building was pulled down and replaced by a Gothic structure that was similar in size but more in keeping with the times. Of course, the latter-day Westminster Abbey is itself a medieval masterpiece, itself over 700 years old. In those 700 years so much intervening history has echoed around its vaulted chambers, the royal throne, the poets'corner and the tomb of the unknown soldier are symbols of so much British heritage, that the thought that there was once an earlier church on same site, matching it in size and grandeur, is strangely disconcerting. The earlier church seems to belong to a past which is almost unreachable now. Once more the extraordinary survival of the Bayeux Tapestry is thrown into sharp relief. The great church of solid stone that Edward the Confessor built as his lasting monument has long disappeared. It is the church of threads that survives.
From the tapestry, and a contemporary description in the Life of King Edward, we can make out the appearance of the building.3 The last architectural achievement of the Anglo Saxon age was a grand imitation of French style. It looked to the future, not the past. The Romanesque style, with its characteristic round-topped arches and clean, elegant lines, had spread north from Burgundy into Normandy and after the Conquest it was to dominate the ecclesiastical landscape of Norman England. During his long exile on the continent Edward must have visited many of the great churches of northern France and it was only natural that his own great project should be an imitation of them. The closest parallel seems to have been the monumental Norman church at the abbey of Jumieges, part of whose roofless shell still survives, but Westminster church was even longer and even more impressive. Five bays of the nave are shown as completed, represented by a series of round-topped arches stitched in wools of three different colours; the bases and capitals of the columns can clearly be seen. A line of clerestory windows runs above. To the east there is a large apse; and from here an enigmatic series of steps descends into the floor, as if indicating the presence of a crypt. The church is dominated at the centre by a monumental tower, borne aloft by a great arch and surrounded by a cluster of smaller turrets. It was the central tower which most struck the imagination of the anonymous author of the Life of King Edward. 'It rises simply at first with a low and sturdy vault, swells with many a stair spiralling up in artistic profusion, but then with a plain wall climbs to the wooden roof which is carefully covered with lead.'
At some point during the long, sombre night of 4/5 January 1066 King Edward the Confessor breathed his last breath and died. Now we can see his coffin being borne slowly towards the church [scene 25]. HIC PORTATUR CORPUS EAD-WARDI REGIS AD ECCLESIAM S[AN]C[T]I PETRI AP[OSTO]LI (Here King Edward's corpse is borne to the church of St Peter the Apostle). The corpse is solemnly carried on an open-topped bier, over which a richly embroidered cloth has been carefully laid. The king's body, completely wrapped in a dark green binding, lies on its side, as lifeless as an empty vessel. Eight men are shouldering the poles; two other figures ring hand bells at the sides. The solemn, metallic chime of bells is accompanied by a dirge chanted out by a group of tonsured clerics at the rear of the funeral procession; two of the priests are holding open prayer books to their breasts.'They bore his holy remains from his palace home into the house of God,' the Life of King Edward tells us, 'and offered up prayers and sighs and psalms all that day and the following night.'4
There was genuine lamenting at King Edward's passing. On the whole he seemed to have been dignified, dutiful and pious and he belonged to the most ancient lineage in England; but was he truly wise? Beneath that pious exterior, behind that lily-white beard and wistful gaze, was Edward the Confessor as much of an enigma to his contemporaries as he appears to us? He has been seen as the archetypical weak and ineffectual king, forever under the domination of powerful nobles; and yet now and then he acted with decision, if not always with effect. In truth, it was probably his position, more than his character, that was inherently weak. Viewed in this way, Edward's acceptance of the power of the Godwins after 1052 can be seen as positive and pragmatic. Certainly, after the dust of war had settled, and the Normans dominated the land, many people were to look back upon the days of King Edward with fondness and nostalgia. Compared to the Danish maelstrom that came before, and the Norman disaster that ensued, it seemed that Edward's reign had brought England over twenty years of relative peace and prosperity. But there was a terrible price to pay. As far as may now be judged (though there is no hint of this in the tapestry) the king seems to have been using his childlessness as a diplomatic tool. In the course of his life, Edward dangled the prospect of the succession in front of far too many people - the King of Denmark, the Duke of Normandy, Edward the Exile and his son Edgar, and at the last moment Harold himself. This, of course, kept various would-be warriors friendly while he lived, but it was storing up immeasurable problems for the future. Duke William, for one, had indicated that he was deadly serious. It mattered not that many years had passed since Edward foolishly raised his hopes, nor that the King of England had since changed his mind. To make matters worse, William had outfoxed Harold into giving him that unlikely promise of support.
We have seen Edward's corpse being borne in all solemnity from the palace to the church of Westminster, but what were his final wishes? For reasons that will become apparent, the tapestry now turns the clock back to the king's last moments, just a few hours earlier. In the upper part of a split scene, we find ourselves transported into Edward's bedchamber somewhere within the turreted palace of Westminster [scene 26;plate 6]. The billowing curtain, which would normally enclose the bed, has been pulled open and tied back so that we can observe the proceedings within. Edward is still living though he is barely alive. Here he is on his deathbed, a wearisome, weakening old man, waiting for death. Death comes to kings as it does to all men. The dying king is surrounded by four attentive, though unnamed, followers. One of them supports his back with a cushion so that he can sit up and speak. A veiled and sombre woman - the second of only three women depicted in the tapestry - is seated at the foot of the bed. The third figure is a tonsured cleric who is seen leaning over in order to catch the king's words. The cleric's unshaven face is dotted with stubble, for he has been attending at the royal bedside for many hours. The fourth witness, seated or kneeling at the front, is a noble follower; his fingers are touching the king's fingers. It is to this fourth figure that Edward is evidently addressing himself in particular. HIC EADWARDUS REX IN LECTO ALLO-QUIT[ UR] FIDELES (Here King Edward in his bed addresses his faithful followers). In the lower part of the scene time has moved on, and we are at the point when all life has left the old man - ET HIC DEFUNCTUS EST (and here he has died). His corpse is tightly wrapped in green cloth. Only his linen-grey face is exposed to view; and this has been angled towards the viewer. For the first time, the gaze of one of the tapestry's figures meets the onlooker in the eye, but this is the chilling, lifeless gaze of death.
None of the four followers, gathered like chess pieces closely around their king, is given a name in the tapestry. Nor are the king's last words, faintly uttered from his own thin lips, recorded in the brief inscription. The words tell us little; the picture reveals the truth. A contemporary written account of Edward's last hours survives, and elucidates what we see in the tapestry. It is to be found in the Life of King Edward, the work commissioned by Queen Edith shortly after the old king died, though it was not completed until after Duke William's victory at Hastings. The author was a Flemish monk; he was clearly on good terms with the queen, and no friend of the Normans, although his name is not known. It can be deduced that some years earlier he had come to England from the monastery of Saint-Bertin at Stomer, not far from Boulogne. By chance the Life survives in an early, fragile, mutilated copy dating from around 1100, neatly copied out in a Canterbury style of writing. The deathbed scene conjured up in the Life of King Edward is so similar to what we see in the tapestry that it is highly probable that the artist held one of the first copies in his own hands and used it as his source. It can hardly be irrelevant that, at this key moment, the artist of the tapestry was using another source from southern England, one which, moreover, was closely connected to Harold's family. According to the Life, the following witnesses were present at the king's deathbed and heard his last wishes: '. . . the queen, who was sitting on the floor warming his feet in her lap, her full brother Earl Harold, and Rodbert, the steward of the royal palace . . . also Archbishop Stigand and a few more whom the blessed king when roused from his sleep had ordered to be summoned'.5
The four persons named in the Life of King Edward can be matched without difficulty to the four who appear in the tapestry. These, then, are not merely representative manikins. They are not merely woollen figurines, illustrative of a deathbed scene in some generic way. They are the real people who were there at that decisive moment, the real witnesses of the king's last will and testament during the night of 4/5 January 1066. The veiled lady at the foot of the bed, by Edward's feet, must be Queen Edith. The unshaven cleric is Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury. The man at the king's back is Robert fitz Wimarch, the French-born royal steward, and the one towards the front, touching fingers with the king in such a redolent, complicit gesture, must be Earl Harold himself. The finger-touching gesture is identical to the one seen when Edward met Harold at the beginning of the tapestry. Harold is thus identifiable, here at the king's deathbed, as one of the FIDELES (the faithful) who are now being addressed by their dying king.
For days he had been drifting in and out of consciousness. Like a pale winter sun appearing now and again behind sombre clouds, old Edward would awaken briefly, mumble something unintelligible and then fall once more under the shadow of a long deep sleep. At one point, however, he started and then he spoke up (the author of the Life tells us) in a clear and healthy voice. He told the assembled group about a dream that he had just had. Edward, in his delirium, had dreamt that two long-dead monks, whom he had known in Normandy, had come to him bearing a terrible message from God. They told him that the holders of the highest offices in England all 'the earls, bishops and abbots and all those in holy orders'- were not what they seemed to be. They were not the servants of God; they were in league with the devil. Within a year and a day of Edward's death, the monks told him, God would punish the whole of England by delivering it into 'the hands of the enemy' and that 'devils shall come through all this land with fire and sword and the havoc of war'. Only when a green tree was cut in half at the middle of its trunk and the upper part transported three furlongs away, and the two parts joined themselves together without the slightest human intervention, and the conjoined tree then sprouted a profusion of leaves and bore fresh fruit, only then would the sins of the people be forgiven and England find respite from its suffering.6
The story of this strange dream owes much, of course, to the fact that the author of the Life was writing after the Battle of Hastings. With the benefit of hindsight he knew the subsequent course of events. The dream-story, and its implicit likening of the Normans to 'devils' sent by God, is revealing nonetheless. It shows how the Norman Conquest appeared to the English, as they tried to comprehend the totality of their defeat. It also shows how the Conquest sometimes appeared to continentals from beyond the borders of Normandy, men like the anonymous Flemish author of theLife of King Edward. In this view, Duke William did not have a lawful claim to the English throne. He was an unwanted pretender, but after he had won the sheer fact of his victory was undeniable. God, the author of all things, must surely have caused that victory. He cannot have done so because William was right, but rather in order to punish the English. It followed that prior to 1066 the English must have been sinful - and sinfulness is never particularly hard to find once you start looking for it in earnest. In the world-view of the time this seemed to be the lesson to be learnt from the Bible. When David sinned, the author of the Life notes, God's vengeance fell from the heavens upon the whole people of Israel.7 Was this not (the people asked themselves) what had really happened to England in 1066?
The little company gathered around Edward's bed 'were sore afraid' and 'stupefied and silent from the effect of terror'when they heard him speak of this dire prophecy. The author of the Life now points his finger explicitly at Archbishop Stigand, whose embroidered counterpart is seen leaning over the king's bed, with his eyes fixed intently on the king. 'He ought to have been the first to be afraid . . . [but] with folly in his heart he whispered in the ear of [Earl Harold] that the King was broken with age and disease and knew not what he said.' Stigand was a great survivor. He was a man with a dubious past and an even more dubious present.8 A cleric of enormous wealth, he had risen to prominence in the days of King Canute and in the course of a long life he contrived to remain in high office under six very different kings. He had been made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052 when his Norman predecessor, Robert of Jumieges, fled the country in haste as the Godwins returned in force. Stigand's appointment in such circumstances was regarded by Rome as null and void and although in 1058 he did obtain recognition by Pope Benedict X, Benedict was deposed a year later and was spoken of as an 'anti-pope'. Stigand's position was also dubious in that he remained the Bishop of Winchester although such pluralism was frowned upon. As a consequence he had been excommunicated by five popes and the sentence of anathema still clung to him like a nasty cold. Yet he used his wily skills and long experience to remain in office. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and especially after Stigand's replacement by Lan-franc in 1070 and his death in 1072, it was easy to find a scapegoat in Archbishop Stigand and to portray him as symbolic of all that was wrong with the English Church. With a man like that occupying the ancient see of Canterbury, it was hardly surprising in this religious-minded age that it appeared God's sleeping anger had been roused. To contemporaries it seemed that God had punished the whole nation for the sins of its leaders.
As King Edward lay dying, the question whether Earl Harold might yet adhere to the sacred oath he had given to Duke William was still hanging on a knife-edge. The Life of King Edward makes no reference to the oath, nor to Duke William's claim at all, but it does describe Edward's dying bequest.9 This must be the very moment, the very gesture, that we can see in the Bayeux Tapestry [scene 26; plate 6]. 'And stretching forth his hand to [Harold], he said: "I commend [Queen Edith] and all the kingdom to your protection."' These words, reported by the author of the Life of King Edward and illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, still seem to hang in the air with an eerie ambiguity. Is Edward bequeathing the kingdom to Harold? Or is he saying that Harold should act as protector and regent, perhaps for the young Edgar? If anything like these words were truly spoken, the king's voice fell silent and he faltered and died on that very bed before he could make himself clearer. The living were left to decipher what he meant. The general view seems to have been that Harold, at the last moment, had been nominated as king. The E version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, also states in the clearest possible terms that Edward bequeathed the kingdom to Harold ('And Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom of England just as the king granted it to him . . .'). Even William of Poitiers, the arch-propagandist of the Normans, admits that Edward on his deathbed nominated Harold.10 This, no doubt, was an inconvenience for the Normans; but the testimony of witnesses such as Queen Edith and Robert fitz Wimarch could hardly be impugned. Poitiers deals with the point by arguing that, whatever had happened at Edward's deathbed, William already had the better claim: Harold had quite simply disqualified himself by swearing to be William's man. In any event it seems that under Norman law Edward's earlier choice of William (as a post obitum gift) would have been regarded as final and irrevocable. In England the custom was different. Since time immemorial ('ever since St Augustine came to these parts') a gift made by an Englishman at the point of death (verba novissima) was regarded as valid and binding.11 Whereas to modern eyes it might seem that a dying person's mental faculties would be at their most questionable, to the Anglo-Saxons a person's thoughts were then at their most lucid and close to God. If this is the true nature of the legal dispute between Harold and William, it has no obvious solution, for it is a dispute between the laws of Normandy and the laws of England. In the absence of an agreed system of supranational law to determine which nation's law should apply, the dispute between two such proud and determined warriors as William and Harold could only be resolved by war.
It remained for the king's nominee to be elected by the Witan, the council of the great in the land, who were already in attendance in large number at Westminster. Accordingly, in the next scene, we see two nobles offering the crown to Harold, one of whom points back at the previous image of King Edward's dying bequest [scene 27]. HIC DEDERUNT HAROLDO CORONA[M] REGIS (Here they gave Harold the king's crown). This, evidently, is the reason why the tapestry depicts Edward's funeral and death in reverse chronological order. The inscription alone tells us very little, but a visual link is clearly being made between the king's last words and the offer of the crown to Harold. If events had been portrayed in their natural sequence, the men offering the crown would have been pointing at Edward's funeral, and not his dying wishes. By pointing to the dying king, the thrust of what they are saying to Harold becomes immediately clear. 'Here is the crown,' the English nobles are telling him. 'It was Edward's last wish that you should have it and we urge you to accept.'
Once again, the story is not being told 'from the Norman point of view'. The tapestry makes not the slightest reference to Duke William's claim to the throne, which was founded upon his earlier designation by Edward, but it does show Harold's own nomination as entirely lawful under English custom. There is no sense in which Harold is a usurper, a man who, in the words of William of Poitiers, 'seized' the crown with the connivance of a few and who was 'the enemy of the good and the just'. Yet although Harold has been duly nominated by the last king he still seems reluctant to accept the highest office. He does not thrust out his arm and seize the crown of threads; he keeps his hand firmly upon his hip. This is a hesitant, pensive man; he is wondering what to do next. Without doubt, the young Edgar Ætheling had a superior blood claim to the throne, but Edgar was barely a teenager and it must have appeared to those who mattered in the Anglo-Saxon state that Earl Harold, an experienced warrior, was truly the man for the moment. Archbishop Stigand, it seems, was one of them; and it may have been his worldly-wise voice that won the doubters over. At the forefront of Harold's mind there was bound to be the memory of the oath he had sworn to William. By now he must have been convinced (by Stigand, perhaps) that the oath was involuntary and invalid - not only in the eyes of man but in those of God as well.
No one, in truth, wanted Duke William as king. Even King Edward had long since changed his mind. In any event the Normans were hardly the sort of people whom you would expect to invade England. Who did this William think he was? Harold, we may imagine, was still smarting at how foolish he had been in Normandy, at the way he had been cornered into swearing an oath. This was his chance to show the Norman duke just how much he was scared. He would brazen the matter out; and he would do so in the most robust manner possible. Harold would be King of England. He would accept the crown himself, just as it seemed the old king had wished, and the blood of the Godwins would now occupy the highest, most glorious office in the land.
So we see King Harold seated in majesty [scene 28]. He sits on his throne, wearing his crown, proudly holding the royal orb and sceptre for everyone to see. HIC RESIDET HAROLD REX ANGLORUM (Here sits upon the throne Harold, king of the English). In the post-Conquest period, the full implications of the tendentious Norman case against 'the usurper' Harold were gradually worked out. If Harold had no right to accept the throne, he had never been king at all. The Normans therefore airbrushed the reign of Harold II out of constitutional history. Quite simply, in legal terms, it had never happened and all those who had supported him were guilty of treason and liable to confiscation and banishment. William of Poitiers, writing in the 1070s, is generally careful never to refer to Harold as 'King Harold', though he drops his guard once or twice. By the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, Harold is always referred to as earl, never as king. By contrast, the tapestry's Harold is a truly regal figure. He is without doubt HAROLD REX, every inch the King of the English, as he stares at us without commentary in that full frontal pose, inviting our judgement upon his actions, sitting there on a royal throne which was scarcely cold from the departure of its previous occupant.
Harold was crowned the very day of Edward's funeral. Westminster must have been exceptionally busy over that Christmas period, with much backroom politicking and earnest whispering in stony halls. A great assembly of earls, bishops and abbots was alreadyin situ. They had come to attend King Edward's Christmas court and to witness the consecration of the new church; they had stayed for Edward's funeral; now they took part in the election of Harold, or at least they would have been present at his coronation. It is not known for certain where the coronation took place. It is often said that William the Conqueror 'inaugurated' the famous practice of English monarchs being crowned at Westminster Abbey. This is what the abbey's own tourist material states. It would, however, be very surprising if, during the course of that short winter's day, the whole party was made to decamp from Westminster to St Paul's in London. Harold, moreover, lacked the authority of the ancient bloodline of the Wessex kings. His was to be a brave new dynasty. He would have wished, so far as he could, to associate his kingship with that of his predecessor, and what better way to do that than to be crowned in the very church that Edward had built and where he now lay buried? It is therefore much more likely that Harold, not William, was the first English monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey.12
The tapestry does not show us the ceremony of coronation that ushered in the brave new age, or rather reign, but standing next to the newly crowned king is none other than STIGANT ARCHIEP[ISCOPU]S (Archbishop Stigand). Like the enthroned Harold, Stigand confronts us in the face, inviting our judgement upon his open pose. William of Poitiers, raising every argument he could think of in order to justify the Norman Conquest, alleges that Harold's coronation was actually carried out by Stigand. It was therefore 'an impious consecration' by a man 'who had been deprived of his priestly office by the just zeal and anathema of the pope'. A later English source, however, maintains that the rite was carried out by Ealdred, the Archbishop of York.13 This is much more likely. Harold would have been as conscious as anyone of Stigand's dubious position. When Harold's own church of Waltham Holy Cross was consecrated in 1060 he used the services of Cynesige, the then Archbishop of York. It can also be shown that the only occasions when Stigand was chosen by the English to consecrate any bishop occurred during the period when he was briefly recognised by Pope Benedict X.14
All that may be so, but the tapestry is still widely interpreted as following the Norman propaganda line - that it was Stigand who anointed Harold and placed the crown on his head. As Archbishop Stigand is named and depicted adjacent to the newly crowned king, and Ealdred of York is nowhere in sight, the work is certainly open to interpretation in the Norman manner. This, however, is only a superficial reading. Any image of the coronation itself has been studiously avoided. Rather, what the tapestry is suggesting is that Stigand, by his very occupation of the see of Canterbury at this time, has sullied the proceedings. He - and corrupt priests like him was about to draw the wrath of God upon the whole country. The Life of King Edward, which the artist certainly knew and used, is evidence of this perspective on events. The Flemish author's criticism of Stigand is scarcely veiled. Stigand was one of those who 'dishonour the Christian religion', one of those who were 'irreparably attracted to the devil by riches and worldly glory'. According to the author of the Life, God'sanger is sometimes roused to such a terrible extent that there is, quite simply, no hope of mercy in this life. 'Under these scourges of the chastising God, many thousands of people are thrown down and the kingdom is ravaged by fire and plunder;and this in times past has been shown to come from the sins of the priests.'15 Thus it seemed that Stigand's sins were so great that a whole people was about to suffer for them.
One moment the people are cheering the new king, the next their heads are tilted upwards at the night sky over Westminster, fingers pointing to the heavens in wonderment and awe [scene 29]. A strange celestial body, a glowing ball of fire with a long hairy tail, has appeared above the dark world. ISTI MIRANT STELLA[M] (These men wonder at the star). In the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C and D), 'throughout all England, a sign, such as men never saw before, was seen in the heavens. Some men declared that it was the star comet, which some men call the "haired" star; and it appeared first on the eve of the Greater Litany, 24 April, and shone thus all week.' What they saw, in fact, was a comet and it was the same comet that was observed in 1682 by the astronomer Edmond Halley, and later named after him. Halley's Comet appears in a regular 76-year cycle, and it so happened that 1066 was one of the years when it was visible. It was last seen in 1986, but in 1066 it would have seemed much brighter to the eye, for on that occasion it passed between the sun and the earth rather than on the other side of the sun. The regular laws governing Halley's Comet were, of course, unknown in this prescientific age, and it is no surprise that people looked upon this strange fiery phenomenon in the night as a divinely ordained portent. It first appeared dimly above England in February, attained maximum brightness in April and was still visible well into May. It was observed elsewhere as well; chroniclers all over Europe reported its appearance and wondered what it might mean.16 In retrospect this became clear to the Normans. In words rhetorically addressed to Harold after his death, William of Poitiers notes coldly: 'The comet, terror of kings, which burned soon after your elevation, foretold your doom.'17
The hand of God has descended benevolently and blessed King Edward's church at Westminster. Now he has fired a warning shot across the heavens. This is the other side of God. This is God in the image of a truculent medieval monarch. His anger, already stirred by Stigand's presumptuous hold on the see of Canterbury, has now been truly roused by Harold's breach of oath. It would have been better for Harold to have chosen exile, imprisonment, slavery or even death in Normandy than to have made a sacred oath that he had no intention of fulfilling, for it now appeared, in retrospect, that in the eyes of God an oath made upon such holy old bones could never be broken, even if it had been made under duress. What else could explain the victory of the Normans in 1066? Harold had been crowned King of England in accordance with all the laws and customs of the land; he may have sat there enthroned, majestically, with all his regalia; but this was as nothing if he did not have the approval of his God.
Perhaps the underlying meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry, this mysterious and many-layered work of genius, is at last becoming clearer. It is not a monument of Norman triumph or celebration. Nor is it a work of Norman propaganda or justification. Rather, at the deepest level, it is beginning to appear as a work of explanation, seen from the tragic English perspective. The artist, working under the domination of the Normans, has succeeded brilliantly in deceiving generation after generation that he is telling the story from the Norman point of view. At another level, however, the Bayeux Tapestry is nothing less than the lost chronicle of the English. It is shot through with what seems to be a true account of what happened - of Harold's journey, the involuntary nature of his oath and Edward's attitude to William - all of which directly contradicts the Norman version of events. In the final analysis, however, it reflects the belief that Duke William was to win at Hastings because Harold, Stigand and the people of England had sinned and because God ordained that the English should be punished. On this account the Normans could be regarded as merely the instruments, and not the champions, of God'swill.
Harold, like everyone else, must have seen that celestial fireball passing so wonderfully across the crisp night sky. Now we see HAROLD again on his throne, only this time he is far from the self-assured, majestic figure who was seated there a moment earlier [scene 30]. He is a changed man, a worried man. His whole demeanour seems unsteady; the crown itself seems about to topple from his head; and he points at it as if to ask: 'How much longer will I be king?' A retainer is secretly explaining something. Perhaps it is the meaning of the comet;perhaps he is conveying some intelligence, recently received, about Duke William's reaction to the turn of events. William, it seems, has not taken the matter quite as philosophically as might have been hoped. Rumour has it that he has ordered the preparation of an enormous invasion force. A ghostly fleet of ships appears in the lower border as if by way of premonition.
This is worrying news. Harold needs to know exactly what William is doing and to that end he has dispatched spies on board a ship bound for Normandy. The ship of spies catches a breath of wind in the curve of its linen sail and, tossed high upon the threaded waves, it steals in secret across a swelling sea[scene 31]. HIC NAVIS ANGLICA VENIT IN TERRAM WILLELMI DUCIS (Here an English ship came to Duke William's land). Landfall is made and now a barelegged Englishman, his tunic hitched up and tucked into his belt, wades sleekly through the shallows and on to an empty Norman beach, bearing a heavy anchor in both hands. Cunningly, he has shaved the back of his neck in order to pass himself off as a Norman. The tapestry leaves the spy's fate unrecorded, but we learn from William of Poitiers that around about the spring of 1066 an English spy was, for all his guile, captured in Normandy and swiftly taken before Duke William. William dispatched him back to Harold with the following instructions:'Take this message from me to Harold: he will have nothing to fear from me and can live the rest of his life secure if, within the space of one year, he has not seen me in the place where he thinks his feet are safest.'18 It was a chilling riposte.