The Making of a Bastard
Cardinal Humbert’s mission to Constantinople might have been ill-fated, but it had been part of a swelling trend. Travellers from the West were an increasingly common sight in the ancient capital of the East. Few of them went, as the cardinal had done, for reasons of diplomacy. Most were on their way to Jerusalem. Even though the massive surge of pilgrims that had marked the one-thousandth anniversary of Christ’s Resurrection had gradually ebbed away in the wake of His failure to descend from heaven, a steady stream continued to trickle through the Queen of Cities, gawping at the relics, taking in the sights, then catching a ferry onwards across the Bosphorus. Indeed, for anyone with a guilty conscience, a taste for adventure and a travel bag full of loot, a really gruelling pilgrimage still ranked as a must-do experience. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that the most enthusiastic pilgrims of all tended to be Normans. Even dukes had been known to share in the mania. Back in 1026, one of them, Richard III, had sponsored the largest single party of pilgrims that Christendom had then seen: seven hundred in all. Nine years later, and the new duke, Richard’s brother, Robert, had gone one better: he had headed off for Jerusalem himself.
Even in 1035, at a time when many of the duke’s countrymen were still serving the Basileus in Italy as mercenaries, the Byzantine high command had grown sufficiently familiar with the Normans to know that it did not greatly care for them. Nevertheless, the swagger of Robert’s entry into Constantinople would long be remembered. Restless, impulsive and buccaneering, the Norman duke had cut a dash sufficient to impress even the spectacle-sated Byzantines, and to win for himself the sobriquet of “the Magnificent.” Tribute to his gilded inheritance: for his father had been Duke Richard II, that same shrewd and calculating operator who had succeeded in transforming his duchy into such an oasis of prosperity that even King Ethelred of the English had sought asylum at his court. Robert’s progress to the Holy Land had duly dazzled like the arc of a meteor. His very mules had been shod with gold, it was said, and his camp-fires – in a climactic extravagance – fuelled with pistachio nuts. Even that most celebrated and seasoned of all pilgrims, Fulk Nerra, when he met up with Robert in Constantinople, had found himself put in the shade. The final seal on this image of flamboyant piety, however, had been set, not in the Holy Land, but on the journey homewards. Taken sick just south of the Bosphorus, Robert had retired to bed in the fabled city of Nicaea, a place redolent of antiquity and holiness – for it was there, back in the time of Constantine, that the creed of the Christian faith, the profession of belief still spoken across the whole wide expanse of Christendom, had originally been settled upon. There he had breathed his last. Perhaps, as one monk theorised, God Himself had taken the duke, “because he was too good for this world.”1
Or perhaps not. Despite the exemplary manner of Robert’s death, the truth was that he made for an improbable paragon. Notorious for his bullying of bishops, and an inveterate rebel in the years before his own accession, he had never entirely escaped suspicion of a crime that would well have merited a penitential trek to Jerusalem: involvement in his brother’s early death. Whether justified or not, the rumours that Robert might have poisoned Richard III spoke volumes about the carnivorous reputation that still shadowed Normandy. Even the disproportionate number of pilgrims from the duchy, far from dispelling the vague aura of menace that clung to the Normans, tended only to add to it. A pilgrimage was an expensive business and one that might readily lend itself to a spot of cheery freebooting on the side. It had certainly not been forgotten in Apulia, for instance, that the very first mercenaries from Normandy to be employed in the region had originally been recruited on Mount Gargano, within the shrine of St. Michael itself.2 Hardly surprising, then, over the succeeding decades, that the reception given in Italy to Norman pilgrims should have grown increasingly hostile. Violence had bred violence in turn. The likelier Norman visitors to Mount Gargano were to find themselves being clubbed to death by irate locals, the likelier they were to travel for safety in large and well-armed bands. It had not taken long for the distinction between pilgrim and brigand to grow an exceedingly blurred one indeed.
No wonder, then, that the wanderlust of the Normans appeared, when viewed from Italy or Constantinople, a characteristic no less alarming than their brutality or their daring, their ferocity or their greed. Just as the Franks, back in the age of Rollo, had imagined the lands of the Northmen as a womb splitting apart with an excess of axe-wielding progeny, so similarly, in the decades that followed the Millennium, did the objects of Norman aggression take for granted that they were the victims of a population explosion back in Normandy. As evidence for this thesis, they needed only to cite those most alarming of all Norman captains: Robert Guiscard and his brothers. Tancred, the patriarch of the Hauteville clan, had fathered twelve sons in all, five with one wife, and seven with her successor, not to mention a clutch of daughters – but his expectations, despite an aptitude for slaughtering boars that had served to win him the admiration of Duke Richard II himself, had never quite kept pace with his fecundity. So it was that most of his sons, rather than scrap over the few mean fields that were the limit of their inheritance, had opted instead to travel abroad, and attempt to carve out their fortunes in the sun. Such a resolve in itself would hardly have served to distinguish them – for other princedoms too were teeming with able warriors on the make. What did strike contemporaries as exceptional, however, was the sheer scale of the Hautevilles’ designs: a craving for wealth and dominance that those who stood in its way soon came to identify as characteristically Norman. “For this is a people who set out and leave behind small fortunes in the expectation of acquiring a greater. And they do not follow the custom of the majority who pass through this world, who are content with prospering as the servants of others – for it is their aim instead to have everyone else subject to them, and acknowledging their lordship.”3
And so it had ever been. A century and more had passed now since Rollo and his followers, fanning out from their dragon-ships, had set about despoiling the natives of what would one day become Normandy – and yet a taste for extravagant property grabs continued to define their descendants. Lethally, joyously even, though the Normans had adapted themselves to the Frankish way of war, there remained, in the way they rode to battle, something of the instincts of the Viking war band still. A leader who could not provide his followers with plunder and opportunity was a leader in deep trouble – and of no one was this truer than the Duke of Normandy himself. “For men had to be fired with a longing to serve him: with spoils and gifts if young and untested, and with a wealth of flourishing estates if already great by birth.”4 Such an obligation, however, in an age when Normandy was hemmed in all around by the mushrooming donjons of neighbouring princedoms, was not as simple to fulfil as it had once been. The same duchy which under the cunning and piratical rule of Richard II had been famed as a haven of order was starting to appear, during the reigns of his two sons, an altogether less stable proposition. The ambitions of the Norman warrior class, as vaunting and ruthless as they had ever been, were turning in on themselves. Not everyone was willing to take the road to Italy. Many preferred to satisfy their land lust at the expense of their own neighbours in Normandy. Once, under Richard II, uppity lords would have found themselves compelled to wear saddles on their backs and crawl before the duke for mercy – but Robert, unlike his father, had lacked the will to rein them in. The pressure on him always to fight, to expand and to succeed had grown a wearisome one; so that by the time he finally opted to shrug it aside altogether, and depart for Jerusalem, his duchy appeared on the verge of disintegration, stained as it was with bloodletting, and riven by gangsterism.
And then he died – and Normandy was left in a more perilous condition still. So perilous, indeed, that there were some who suspected poison, and a plot to destabilise the duchy for good. With good reason, perhaps – for there was certainly a most plausible mastermind to hand. Track record, motive and opportunity: Fulk Nerra, Robert’s companion out on the eastern pilgrimage trail, combined them all.5The Count of Anjou, whose princedom was separated from Normandy only by a single hoof-gashed buffer, the unfortunate county of Maine, had long been angling to roll back Norman power. Now, with Robert dead, such a goal appeared eminently achievable. Normandy had effectively been decapitated.
The new duke was a boy of only eight years old, a bastard of Robert’s by the name of William. In Anjou, predictably enough, much was made of his parentage. William’s mother, his enemies alleged, was the daughter of a man whose loathsome duty it had been to prepare corpses for burial: a wretch irredeemably polluted by filth and rottenness and death.6 The charge was certainly a damaging one – for it served directly to cast aspersions upon the new duke’s fitness to rule. The science of heredity was a serious matter, after all. As the ancients had long since proved, both sperm and menstrual blood were suffused with the essence of an individual’s soul – and since, as everyone knew, it was their commingling that served to form an embryo, it implied that baseness as well as nobility might be implanted within a womb, there to flow within a foetus’s veins. Robert, by slaking his lusts upon a corpse-handler’s daughter, had most likely bred a monster. The vileness of the grandfather, so William’s enemies charged, could hardly help but manifest itself within the grandson. The young duke, if only permitted to grow to adulthood, appeared fated to serve as the shroud-winder, not of the dead, but of very kingdoms.
Or would have been, perhaps, had the slanders been remotely true. In fact, far from practising a low-bred and abhorrent trade, William’s grandfather had been an official in the ducal court.7 Not a warrior, to be sure – but then bastardy, among the Normans, had never been reckoned a fatal taint. Indeed, often they had seemed positively to approve of it: “for it has always been their custom, for as long as they have been settled in France, to take as their princes the offspring of concubines.”8 The resigned shrugs with which outsiders tended to note this was hardly surprising, perhaps. Things might well have been worse. The marital habits of the Northmen had long been a matter of scandal. In Sweden, for instance, a barbarous land so remote that it lay even beyond the limits of the North Way, it was reported that men might have up to three or four wives at a time – “and princes an unlimited number.”9 But then the Swedes were unregenerate pagans. In lands where the Northmen had become Christians, princes were generally content to satisfy themselves with two. So it was, for instance, that even the ostentatiously pious Canute, when he married Emma, Ethelred’s Norman widow, and restored her to her former status as Queen of the English, had opted not to dwell on the awkward fact that he was already married. Aelfgifu, an Englishwoman who had been with him since the very earliest days of his arrival in England, had already given him two sons: a reserve of heirs that Canute had not the slightest intention of squandering. Indeed, in 1030, he packed one of them off, along with Aelfgifu herself, to govern the Norwegians, who had recently been brought to submit to his rule. Although his own bishops might fulminate sternly against bigamy, the practice brought Canute too many advantages for him to contemplate abandoning it. In Normandy too, it had often proved a godsend. One wife from the Frankish world, and one from the Norman: such had long been the preference of the dukes. In the marriage bed as elsewhere, they liked to face both ways.
Except that even in Normandy the times were gradually changing. For there too, as the decades of the new millennium slipped by, the fathering of children on numerous wives was coming to seem an increasingly unacceptable habit, the practice of sinister peoples “ignorant of divine law and chaste morals”:10 the Saracens, for instance, or – most barbarous of all – the Bretons. Such an attitude shift reflected, in part, the sheer smouldering weight of the Church’s disapproval: its insistence that marriage was properly an exclusive partnership of equals. Perhaps even more significant, however, was the nobility’s own vague but dawning realisation that it was not plunder which represented the surest guarantee of establishing a family’s greatness, but the transmission, Capetian-style, of an undivided patrimony. That being so, the right of a lord’s heir to succeed to his father’s lands had to be established beyond all possible doubt. William might have been illegitimate – and yet it was significant that he was also an only son. Duke Robert had very consciously refrained from taking a wife. Only once he had summoned the lords of Normandy to his court, and formally presented William to them as his successor, had he ventured to leave for the Holy Land. No one had been left in any doubt as to who his heir was to be.
Not that, in a society as loot-hungry as that of the Normans, an oath of loyalty to an eight-year-old could be taken for granted – nor was it. The years of William’s minority would long be remembered in Normandy as a time of violence and cruelty exceptional even by the standards of what had gone before. Rival warlords, with no one to leash them in, found themselves free to indulge all their most razor-clawed instincts. Nothing more brutally illustrated what might be at stake than the fashion, one bred of increasingly savage and incessant feuding, for abducting rivals, even from wedding feasts, and subjecting them to horrific mutilations. Blindings were particularly popular; castrations too. As well they might have been: for those who aimed to found a flourishing dynasty naturally had to look to neuter the competition. Meanwhile, “forgetful of their loyalties, many Normans set about piling up mounds of earth, and then constructing fortified strongholds on them for themselves.”
As it had done in the southern princedoms, so now in Normandy, a sudden rash of castles served as the surest symptom of a spreading anarchy. “Plots began to be hatched, and rebellions, and all the duchy was ablaze with fire.”11 As for William himself, he was soon inured to the spectacle of slaughter: two of his guardians were hacked down in quick succession; his tutor as well; and a steward, on one particularly alarming occasion, murdered in the very room in which the young duke lay asleep. Yet even as blood from the victim’s slit throat spilled across the flagstones, William could feel relief as well as horror: for he at least had been spared. The feuding that resulted in the assassination of so many appointed to his household never had him as its object. Violence-shadowed the years of his childhood certainly were; but throughout them all he retained his hold on the title that had been bequeathed to him, and him alone, by his father: the Duke of Normandy.
To see how much more perilous things might have been for him had Robert fathered a brood of heirs with different women, and left behind a tangled succession, William had only to look across the Channel. There, with a determination that marked her out as a true member of the Norman ducal clan, Queen Emma was engaged in a frantic power struggle of her own. Like Normandy, England had recently been thrown into a state of crisis: for in the autumn of 1035, at around the same time that the news had reached Emma of her nephew’s death in Nicaea, the man who had previously guaranteed her rank for her, her second husband, the great Canute, was being laid within his own coffin. Solemnly, before their marriage, he had sworn an oath that he would “never set up the son of any other woman to rule after him”;12 but no sooner had he breathed his last than Harold, Aelfgifu’s younger son, was moving in on the English throne. Not for nothing, it seemed, was the young prince nicknamed “Harefoot” – and Emma, certainly, had found herself left behind in the dust. Her own son by Canute, Harthacanute, was absent in Scandinavia; nor, despite her increasingly frantic summons, was he willing to abandon his inheritance there, for the Norwegians were in revolt, and with such success that their new king, Magnus, had begun to menace Denmark itself.
By 1036, Harefoot’s grip on England was tightening. Emma, having first barricaded herself inside Winchester in an effort to keep Wessex at least secure for her son, then tried spreading rumours that the usurper was not Canute’s son at all, but a bastard who had been smuggled into the hated Aelfgifu’s bed. Next, after that tactic had failed to draw blood, she dispatched an urgent appeal for assistance to Edward and Alfred, her two sons by Ethelred – which was, if anything, an even more shameless throw. Emma had seen neither of them for twenty years. Throughout the whole of Canute’s reign, they had been living as exiles in Normandy – quite forgotten and unlamented, so it had always seemed, by their hard-nosed mother, the queen.
And not by her alone. Edward might have been crown prince of the House of Cerdic – but there was little enthusiasm among the kingdom’s power brokers for the restoration of its native dynasty to the throne. Much had changed since the time of Ethelred. Canute had made sure to promote a new breed of earl to the rule of England. Such men owed nothing to the Cerdicingas. Indeed, the highest flying of them all, an English lord of previously obscure family by the name of Godwin, had good reasons for bearing a personal grudge against Ethelred’s line: for back in the darkest days of the Viking assaults on England, he had witnessed his father unjustly accused of treason by the old king, and driven into exile. A salutary demonstration, no doubt, of the need always to keep on the right side of the powerful – and Godwin himself, in his own relations with royalty, certainly always made sure to swim with the tide. Smooth, prudent and opportunistic, he had duly succeeded in keeping afloat even amid the tempest-rack of the Danish subjugation of England – and to such effect that he had ended up with an earldom, and Canute’s own sister-in-law, Gytha, as a wife. By the time Emma dispatched her summons to Normandy, begging her two sons to come and join her, Godwin held the rank of the Earl of Wessex, no less. Many of the lands that had once belonged to Ethelred were now his. The ships that patrolled the Channel, the troops that guarded the south coast – most were his as well. And Emma’s two sons, landing in England, duly ran straight into Godwin’s men.
Who gave them a thoroughly bruising reception. Edward, greeted in his ancestral homeland as though he were nothing more blue-blooded than a common pirate, was soon scarpering back to Normandy, his tail between his legs. Alfred, crossing southern England in a frantic attempt to reach his mother, was intercepted by Godwin’s men, handed over to Harefoot in chains, and blinded. So brutal were the mutilations inflicted on him that the wretched prince died soon afterwards of the wounds. The following year, having finally been driven out of Winchester by Harefoot’s agents, Emma escaped to Flanders, there to endure a bleak and wintry exile. Implacable still in the pursuit of her vendettas, she had no sooner arrived than she was putting about a story that it was Harefoot who had sent the fateful letter to her sons, and that her own seal on it had been a forgery. Edward, at any rate, was less than convinced. In 1038, when Emma summoned him to join her in Bruges, he refused. Even the perils of life in Normandy, it appeared, were preferable to his mother.
A grim and sordid episode – and to the young Duke William, whose reluctant guest Edward remained, a most instructive one. Certainly, it would have confirmed for him the stern lesson that his ancestors had always taught their young: that to be a prince was nothing, if not also a conqueror. William, unlike his father, did not shrink from the harsh destiny to which this bound him, but rather embraced it. He had been well instructed in what it took to be a leader of the Norman people. His ambition, one that everyone with a care for his education had worked tirelessly to inculcate, was to fashion himself anew, to become a being forged out of steel. Such, indeed, was the labour of transformation that all those Normans who aspired to greatness were obliged to take upon themselves. Even girls, as they played in a castle’s stables or ran around its courtyard, were being raised within a world of sweat and iron – and childhood, for their brothers, was all a preparation for war. “Arms and horses and the exercises of hunting and hawking: such are the delights of a Norman.”13 The delights, perhaps – but also, far more crucially, the means of putting him to ceaseless test.
For only if a young man were prepared to risk death in the pursuit of some savage forest beast, or to practise with his sword all the hours of a day, or to perform prodigies of horsemanship, might he hope to win for himself that sweetest of felicities: the approbation of his fellows. Rank could be reckoned nothing without this. True of every lord, it was especially true of the duke. From his earliest days, William had been surrounded by his kinsmen. Amid all the shocks and convulsions of his childhood, they had been perhaps the only constant. “Nurri,” they were termed: young men “nourished” by William’s side, his brothers-in-arms, and more than brothers. Sharers in his upbringing, they too were being raised as carnivores through gruelling training.
No longer were the arts of killing the simple matter they had once been, back in the days of Rollo’s war bands. To handle a lance properly while in the saddle, whether throwing it or couching it below the arm, in the most up-to-date and lethal manner, with all a horseman’s weight behind it: here was a skill that might take years to perfect. Other martial disciplines, even more essential, even more cutting-edge, were an even greater challenge to master. It was a telling tribute, then, to the education received by William and his companions, that one of them, his closest friend, William fitz Osbern, would emerge as the acknowledged master of castle-building. Fulk Nerra, poisoner of Duke Robert though he might have been, had his heirs in Normandy as well as in Anjou. The strategy that he had pioneered, of using castles as instruments of aggression, was one that might almost have been designed to appeal to the eager wolf pack growing up around the Norman duke. Attack, spoliation, conquest: fitting pursuits for warrior lords.
And yet, for William himself, not the only ones. If war was his primary duty, then he did not forget that he had a duty as well to give his people peace. Naturally, he saw no contradiction between these twin vocations: for it would only ever be as a warlord that he could hope to stamp his will on his turbulent people. Master of a race of predators, he had no choice save to establish himself as the most lethal predator of all. “For discipline the Normans with justice and firmness, and they will prove themselves men of great valour, who press invincibly to the fore in arduous undertakings and, proving their strength, fight resolutely to overcome all enemies. But without such rule they tear each other to pieces and destroy themselves – for they hanker after rebellion, cherish sedition, and are ready for any treachery.”14
William could have no doubt, then, even as he devoted himself to the practice of war, that he was performing God’s work. No doubt either that Providence, fulfilling its mysterious designs through seeming accidents and twists of fate, might serve to demonstrate that God in turn was working for him. Indeed, as an illustration of how heaven’s blessings might fall unexpectedly upon the head of a deserving prince, he had only to track the fortunes of a long-term guest at his own court. If the fiasco of Edward’s first return to England had confirmed for William the priceless value of a metalled fist, then its conclusion would serve to teach some very different lessons. That the wicked might be overthrown. That the favoured of God might be granted a sudden opportunity to raise themselves up on to a throne. That a man might travel from Normandy to England and become a king.
Four years had passed since the fatal blinding of Edward’s brother. Then abruptly, in March 1040, Harold Harefoot, the man chiefly responsible for the atrocity, died. Three months later, Harthacanute, Canute’s remaining son, landed in Kent, accompanied by sixty ships and Emma, his gloating mother. True, he hardly came trailing clouds of glory: for back in Denmark, he had been obliged to abandon Norway for good and agree, as the price for securing a peace treaty, that should he die without an heir, then the Norwegian king Magnus would succeed to his various kingdoms. Nevertheless, despite Harthacanute’s less than triumphant record, there was no one in England to oppose him; and the new King of England, just to rub this in, immediately ordered his half-brother’s corpse dug up, dragged through a sewer and then dumped into the Thames. The following year, he invited his other half-brother, Edward, to return from Normandy. Clearly, it could only have been the hand of God which had prompted Harthacanute to take this unexpected step: for in June 1042, as he drank at a wedding feast, “he suddenly fell to the earth with an awful convulsion; and those who were close by took hold of him, and he spoke no word afterwards, but passed away.”15
The way now stood open, rather to the surprise of everyone, for the restoration to the English throne of its ancient royal line. Prominent in the ranks of enthusiasts for Edward’s claim was none other than that seasoned weathervane, Earl Godwin. Coolly abandoning his loyalty to the house of Canute, and smoothing over his involvement in the death of the wretched Alfred, the Earl of Wessex moved quickly to build bridges. The other earls of England were soon brought to agree with him. Certainly, there was no one who thought to make any mention of the claim of Magnus of Norway. On Easter Day 1043, Edward was duly crowned and anointed king. Two years later, on 23 January 1045, at the age of forty, he was married for the first time. His youthful queen, Edith, was beautiful, skilled at embroidery, fluent in five languages – and the daughter of Earl Godwin.
A moving demonstration of reconciliation, undertaken for the good of the English people, and well befitting a Christian king? Certainly, in years to come, Edward would indeed come to be hailed as a model of saintly piety: as “the Confessor.” Yet the truth was that he did not lack for vindictiveness. Upon his own mother, for instance, he inflicted a thoroughly public disgrace: the confiscation of all her treasure, and temporary banishment from the court. But then Emma – despite rumours that had her conspiring with King Magnus – had already been de-fanged for good. Nothing remained for her, following her son’s accession, save to wither in obscurity and wait for death. The contrast with Earl Godwin could hardly have been more striking. He retained, even after Edward’s coronation, the status that he had held before it: that of king-maker. And perhaps, in due course, in the wake of his daughter’s brilliant marriage, that of grandfather to a king.
To any ambitious prince, then, the startling turnaround in Edward’s fortunes offered warning as well as inspiration. Across the Channel, Emma’s great-nephew would have marked with interest the lesson of her fall, and of the wedding of King Edward to the Lady Edith. As well he might have done – for William was coming of age. The resolution implanted and fostered within him, never to live in anyone’s shadow, never to tolerate a rival, always to conquer, “shone brilliantly and clearly in him”16 – and was ready at last to be tested upon the stage of the duchy itself. In 1047, confronted by a rebellion led by his own cousin, the young duke rode out to battle for the first time, and emerged from the resulting mêlée bloodily and heroically triumphant. Then, returning from the campaign, he set about ramming home his victory by dismantling a number of illegally raised castles. That same year, in an even more pointed measure, he presided over a council at Caen, and proclaimed the Peace of God. Not that there had been any role in it for uppity peasants – nor even for uppity bishops. In Normandy, no one was to be permitted to rival, still less challenge, the authority of William himself. “For who can possibly argue that a good prince should tolerate rebellious brigands?”17 In time, bringing order where there had been anarchy, the Peace of God would indeed be imposed across the duchy – to the greater glory, however, not of the Church, nor even of the saints, but of the duke alone. The Truce would hold – except when William was minded to break it. The Normans would lay down their weapons – except when wielding them in William’s cause. Peace would be brought to Normandy – and war to William’s neighbours.
But which neighbours, and at what cost to them? Here were questions that still remained to be answered.
January 1045: the month of the marriage between King Edward and the Lady Edith – and of a second royal wedding. A strange symmetry: for the two grooms had long shared numerous correspondences. Like Edward, Harald Sigardurson belonged to a dynasty that had been toppled by Canute; like Edward, he had fled into exile; and like Edward, he had spent many decades preparing for the moment when he could at last reclaim his patrimony. Both men, in due course, would find their destinies fatefully intertwined – as would the family of Godwin too.
The eastern frontier of Christendom
Yet the marriage of the second prince was being held not in England, nor anywhere near it, but far towards the rising of the sun, on the margin of interminably spreading forests, amid wastes so impossibly distant that the learned had once reckoned them the prison of Gog and Magog. It was a mark of the times, indeed, that an ancient Christian people such as the English could find themselves embroiled in the affairs of anywhere so remote. Even among the Northmen the vastness of the landmass that stretched eastwards of the Baltic was capable of inspiring a shudder. “Sweden the Great,” they termed it – or “Sweden the Cold.” Giants lived there, it was reported, and dwarfs, and men with mouths between their nipples who never spoke but only barked, “and also beasts and dragons of enormous size.”18 Yet the Northmen, a people incorrigibly adventurous, had never been ones to shrink from the rumour of terrors. Already, as early as 650, a Swedish explorer of the Baltic had won for himself the sonorous title of “Far-Reacher”; and there were many, over the succeeding centuries, who had followed in his wake. Beating their way up the rivers that flowed into the Gulf of Finland, gliding across icy lakes, straining as they bore their vessels overland past churning rapids, they had ventured ever further southwards, until at length, borne along widening currents, the Northmen had found themselves debouching into the warm waters of the South, the Black Sea and the Caspian, with easy passage onwards to fabulous cities rich in silks and gold. The seeming wilderness of Sweden the Great had proved itself in truth the very opposite: a land of opportunity. No less than the surging waters of the Atlantic, mighty rivers such as the Dnieper and the Volga had served the Northmen as highways to adventure and betterment. “Like men they journeyed for distant treasure.”19 Onwards, swelling the gold rush, the crews of their ships had pressed. Tirelessly, their oars had dipped and flashed. No wonder that the natives, watching them from the banks, had referred to them simply as “rowers” – as the “Rus.”20
Such a name, redolent as it was of energy and effort, had fitted the newcomers well. It might be lucrative to transport furs and slaves to feed the appetites of the great cities of the South, yet the journey was a gruelling one: “full of hardship and danger, agony and fear.”21 Whether it was pulling on their oars, or manning the raw wooden palisades of their trading stations, or slaughtering anyone who sought to muscle in on their cartel, the Rus had found themselves with little choice but to operate as a team. Although they were tiny in number, intruders within a vast and hostile land, the very knowledge of how perilous were their circumstances had served to instil in them a ferocious sense of discipline. They had fought and traded together as “Varangians”: men bound together by a common pledge, a “vár.” The dangers and the profits: the Rus had shared them both.
And steadily, over the decades, their swords had reddened, and their coffers overflowed. Transit posts had evolved into forts; forts into booming towns. The most imposing of all these went by the name of Kiev: a stronghold raised on a ravine-scored hill beside the Dnieper, ideally placed to control the flow of traffic along the river. Ideally placed as well to cow the natives, and to extort tribute from them, and to recruit them to serve in ever-swelling war bands. Inexorably, in the decades that preceded the Millennium, the Rus had succeeded in establishing themselves as something more than merely merchants – as princes. In 980, when one of them, the bastard son of a Kievan warlord by the name of Vladimir, had succeeded in returning from exile in Scandinavia and seizing power in his native city with the backing of Varangians from Sweden, he had laid claim as well to an immense and shadowy protection racket: one that extended from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
This startling achievement put the lordships won by Northmen elsewhere into a somewhat sobering perspective. Everything in the lands of the Rus – “Russia” – existed on a vaster and more fabulous scale. In 1015, on Vladimir’s death, his sons had fought a great and terrible war that had seemed, by the reports of it that echoed dimly from the frozen battlefields, the shadow play less of mortal princes than of fantastical heroes sprung from the tall tales of pagans. For months, the armies of rival brothers had faced one another across the raging torrents of the Dnieper. The younger, Yaroslav, was nicknamed “the Lame”; and his enemies, screaming abuse from the far bank above the howling of the steppeland gales, had jeered at him as a cripple. But then, with the coming of winter, the river had begun to freeze over, and Yaroslav, lame or not, had succeeded in leading his forces across the thickening floes. Trapping his enemies, he had driven them backwards on to thin ice, and their doom.
Still the war had raged. Three times Yaroslav had confronted the armies of his brother – and three times he had dyed the snows red with their blood. His victory, in the end, had been total. His brother, pursued in his imaginings by invisible huntsmen, had fled to Poland and died there a madman, stabbing at empty air with his sword. Other brothers too, over the decades, had been eliminated. Yaroslav himself, meanwhile, laying claim to the rule of Kiev, had set about the task of fashioning his rickety mafia state into a realm such as any king in Christendom might admire – and with such success that he would end up remembered, not as “the Lame,” but as “the Wise.”
It was in Scandinavia, however, that his fame shimmered most glamorously of all: for to the Northmen he appeared the cynosure of princes, renowned as far as Iceland for his cunning, his opulence and the seductiveness of his daughters. Even though Yaroslav himself, with his Slavonic name, his Slavonic habits and his Slavonic tongue, was no more a Viking than was his distant cousin, the Duke of Normandy, he had not forgotten his roots. As a young man, he had been sent by his father to rule a stronghold only a few days’ journey from the northern seas: the celebrated “New Castle,” or Novgorod. Raised on the site of a fabulously ancient shrine, with a black-watered lake on one side and limitless forests on the other, and fashioned so entirely out of wood that even its documents were made of birch bark, the town was still, more than a century after its foundation, brash with frontier spirit. As such, it had long been a magnet for adventurers from across the North. Olaf Trygvasson, for instance, was said to have travelled there as a boy after having been ransomed from slavery, and to have met with his original captor in the town’s market place, where he killed him on the spot with an axe. Then, in 1028, another celebrated Norwegian exile had made for Novgorod. Olaf Haraldsson, “the Stout,” as he was known, had been a Christian king very much in the tradition of Trygvasson. Brutal and domineering, and “with eyes as hard as a serpent’s,”22 he had passed a rumbustious decade browbeating his various rivals and committing spectacular atrocities, all in the name of Christ – until at length, wearying of his bullying, the Norwegian lords had invited in Canute.
Two years later, impatient to be revenged on his enemies, Olaf the Stout had returned across the Baltic. This was a doomed throw – for not even the installation as regent of Canute’s English wife Aelfgifu had been sufficient to provoke the Norwegians into resuming their support for their exiled king. While still in Novgorod, it was said, Trygvasson had appeared to Olaf in a dream, and reassured him that “it is a glorious thing to die in battle”23 – which was just as well, for in the summer of 1030, at a village named Stiklestad, his ragtag gang of clansmen and desperadoes had been cut to pieces. Olaf himself, crippled by an axe blow just above his knee, and skewered through with a spear, had been finished off by having his neck hacked open to the vertebrae. And meanwhile, above the battlefield, it was claimed, the sky itself had begun to bleed.
Yet though the scene of slaughter had been monstrous, not everyone in Olaf’s retinue had fallen. Enough of them had survived to spirit their lord’s corpse away, and to help the more prominent among the wounded to escape. Among the fugitives had been the king’s half-brother: Harald Sigardurson. Only fifteen years old at the time, he had a lust for glory and a taste for violence that had already served to mark him out as an authentic chip off the old block. Just as Olaf had done two years previously, so now, after Stiklestad, the princely refugee had skulked his way over mountains and through dripping forests; and just like Olaf, he had ended up in Novgorod. There, treading the planks laid down across oozing mud that constituted the city’s high street, he had made his way to the palace – the “kremlin,” as it was termed by the Rus – and begged for asylum. Yaroslav, evidently a dab hand at spotting potential, had promptly recruited the exile to serve him as a Varangian.
For three years, the increasingly hulking Harald had applied himself to becoming “the king of warriors”:24 smiting the sledded Polacks and winning golden opinions of his patron. Not quite golden enough, however: for in 1035, when Harald asked for the hand of Elizabeth, one of Yaroslav’s daughters, the father had turned him down flat. It was a measure of how dazzlingly the prestige of the Rus had come to blaze that their princesses were by now reserved only for the very cream of European royalty – and Harald, as a Varangian captain, had hardly measured up. Only the prospect that he might achieve things worthy of Elizabeth – and secure sufficient gold to impress her notoriously grasping father – had served to leave him with cause for hope. And so it was, resolved to make a name for himself before his intended could be handed over to some more prestigious suitor, that Harald had headed south. Leaving Yaroslav’s court, he had known that he had only a narrow window of opportunity: for Elizabeth, by 1035, was already ten years old.
All the more fortunate for Harald, then, that his destination had effectively chosen itself. Even though the Vikings in Russia had long been regular visitors to “Serkland,” where the dark-skinned Tartars and Saracens lived, and even though they had brought back treasures garnered from the very limits of the horizon, whether silver dirhams from Baghdad, or golden tableware from Egypt, or idols of a peculiar god named the Buddha from strange realms unheard of, all along they had never doubted where the surest wellspring of riches lay. To the Northmen, Constantinople was, quite simply, the capital of the world: “the Great City,” “Miklagard.” For almost two hundred years it had glittered in their dreams, “tall-towered Byzantium,”25 a repository of everything that was most beautiful and wondrous on Middle Earth. Indeed, imagining how Odin’s stronghold in the heavens might appear, the Northmen could do no better than to picture it as a city much like Caesar’s golden capital, roofed with precious metals, gleaming with splendid palaces, and encircled by a giant wall.
Of Constantinople’s own impregnability, they had few doubts: for at regular intervals the Rus had set themselves to capturing it, and been repeatedly rebuffed, their longboats either sunk in mysterious storms whipped up by the prayers of the defenders, or else incinerated by sinister weapons of fire sprayed from Byzantine warships. Even Yaroslav, in 1043, would have a crack at capturing the Great City – and end up losing his entire fleet for his pains. Yet though these eruptions from the Dnieper were periodic, and thoroughly alarming to the Byzantines themselves, who would invariably be taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of barbarians in the Bosphorus, the truth was that they were little more than the spasming of a cultural cringe. The Rus might have been Swedish in origin, and Slavonic by adoption – and yet deep in their heart of hearts, where inferiority complexes invariably lurk, they yearned to be Byzantine.
Which was why, as the princes of Kiev set about the task of fashioning an empire of their own, imitation had increasingly superseded intimidation. Back in 941, during one of their abortive assaults on the Great City, the Rus had amused themselves by using monks for target practice and hammering nails into the foreheads of priests; forty-odd years later, and Prince Vladimir had agreed to be baptised. Cannily, however, before taking the plunge, he had made sure to evaluate the opposition. Embassies had duly been dispatched to investigate the mosques of the Saracens and the cathedrals of the Germans. “But we saw no glory there.” Then they had visited Miklagard; and been led into the city’s churches. “And we knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We only know that God dwells there among men.” Such had been the awestruck verdict delivered back to Kiev. “We cannot forget that beauty.”26
This, even by the standards of the great game that Byzantine diplomats had been playing with such proficiency for centuries, had ranked as a signal coup. So much so, indeed, that the Basileus, swallowing his instinctive distaste for marriage alliances with barbarians, had sent Vladimir his own sister: the very ultimate in Christian queens. A grim fate for any princess brought up in Constantinople – and yet the new “tsarita,” even as she settled into her new quarters beside the Dnieper, had at least been able to console herself that her sacrifice was not in vain. No matter that the Rus had remained prone to the occasional lurch into lunatic aggression: at least they were no longer pagan, nor in league with the Saracens, nor beholden to the Germans. Harald, making his way southwards to Miklagard, would have found in Kiev many a tribute raised to the abiding allure of the Queen of Cities. Palaces and domed churches, gateways and mighty walls: here, set upon a landscape that barely a century before had been mere featureless savagery, were the unmistakable stamps of the New Rome.
Not that the trade was all one way. Merchants arriving from the Dnieper, loaded down with any number of exotic treasures, whether walrus ivory, or amber, or fish glue, or wax, continued to flock to the lantern-lit markets of the Great City. Even with all the various indignities imposed on them by the imperial bureaucracy, all the quotas, and registration forms, and quality-control inspections, the skimmings to be had in Miklagard remained the stuff of avaricious report across the North. Furs, in particular, still garnered fabulous profits. Hardly fabulous enough for Harald, however. Not for him the option of becoming a “skin,” as merchants were dismissively known. He was, after all, a warrior, and the brother of a king. Toweringly as he loomed, and with a self-regard to match, only one profession had been worthy of his talents. “Fierce, proud warriors standing up to ten feet in height”27 were the kind of mercenaries that the Byzantines had always prized. As a consequence, Varangians were even more in demand in Constantinople than in Kiev or Novgorod. Only tame a Northman, a succession of emperors had found, and all the qualities that rendered him so alarming as an adversary – his animal savagery, his proficiency with an axe, his ferocious beard – could serve to make of him a truly pedigree bodyguard. Like house-broken attack dogs, Varangians were famed for their loyalty. Seventy of them, it was said, in their mortification at having failed to prevent the murder of Nicephorus Phocas, had opted to fight to the death rather than make an accommodation with his assassins. No wonder, then, at the most awesome moment in any emperor’s life, when he stood beneath the flickering gold of the dome of Hagia Sophia to be crowned God’s viceroy, and to take up for the first time the attributes of his new majesty, the sceptre and the purple cloak, the sword and the scarlet boots, that there, massed all around him, their axes slung over their shoulders, their outfits chillingly barbarous, would be serried a posse of Varangians. To guard a Caesar was a truly awesome charge. Indeed, a responsibility that might be worthy of a prince.
Admittedly, enthusiasm for the Varangians among imperial circles was not universal. “Wine-bags,” they were nicknamed in the palace: testimony to a taste for late-night revelling that weary courtiers had learned to dread. Never, however, had there been a Varangian who generated quite the noise that Harald did. Brags about his exploits in the imperial service would end up echoing as far afield as Iceland. “Harald,” as one overexcited flatterer put it, “you forced all the lands of the Mediterranean to submit to the Emperor!”28 A claim that would certainly have been news to the Basileus himself, let alone the Saracens – but tribute, nevertheless, to the unprecedented strut and clamour that Harald had brought to the business of being a Varangian. In Sicily, it was claimed, he had captured no fewer than eighty towns. In the Holy Land, he had bathed in the River Jordan, and conquered Jerusalem – “an easy task for Harald.”29 In Constantinople, he had been thrown into prison by a lovelorn empress, helped to blind an emperor and fought with a dragon. The plausible and the utterly fantastical, in the rumours of Harald’s deeds, were promiscuously mixed. And to sensational effect – for in the North he was soon a living legend. Even Yaroslav had ended up impressed. As well he might have done – for he had been sent the hard proof of his would-be son-in-law’s achievements. Piled up for safe keeping in an island compound outside Novgorod was a great heap of treasure, “a hoard of wealth so immense that no one had ever seen its like before”:30Harald’s winnings.
Finally, by 1044, with Constantinople growing increasingly too hot for him, and the still single Princess Elizabeth turned nineteen, the conquering hero had felt that the time was ripe to head back north to claim his by now nubile prize. Loading up his coffers with yet more gold, and making a spectacular getaway in a stolen galley, he had duly returned up the Dnieper to Yaroslav. And so at last, with the New Year, it had come about: the consummation of all his hopes. “The warlike king of Norway won the match of his desire.” So one poet celebrated the occasion. “He gained a princess – not to mention a hoard of treasure.”31
Yet for all the dash that Harald had no doubt cut on his arrival in Novgorod, with “his clothes of silk, given him by the King of Miklagard,”32 mere glamour on its own, no matter how spiced up with gold, would hardly have been sufficient to win him Yaroslav’s daughter. During the decade and more of his absence from Scandinavia, however, his prospects had spectacularly improved: for he had become the brother of a saint, no less. Olaf the Stout, whose attempt to reclaim Norway had ended amid such bloody ruin, had been splendidly compensated for the loss of his earthly throne with one in heaven. A most improbable elevation, it might have been thought – and yet a succession of miracles had served to prove Olaf’s sanctity beyond all doubt. For even with the carnage of Stiklestad reeking in the nostrils, it was said, his blood had served the wounded as a curative; and a whole year after his death, when his corpse was dug up from a sandbank, it had been found miraculously intact, with hair and nails still growing. Transferred to a church altar in the port of Trondheim, a foundation of Olaf Trygvasson, the relics had continued to heal the sick and injured at a prodigious rate. By the time of Harald’s return to the North, his brother’s death had been transfigured into a martyr’s “passion. ”33Across the whole span of the Viking world, from Novgorod to Dublin, a brutal warlord had begun to be venerated as a “holy king.”34 This startling turnaround was vivid testimony to the yearning among the Northmen, even as they turned their backs on their ancient gods, for a saint whom they could hail as their own.
Good news for Harald, certainly, as he set off for home, “freighted with hard won honour and gleaming gold.”35 But he was not the only beneficiary of his dynasty’s new-found association with the heavenly: for Magnus, the young king who had expelled the Danes from Norway, was St. Olaf’s son. In 1045, he stood at the summit of his power: King of Denmark as well as of Norway, thanks to the treaty he had signed back in 1039 with Harthacanute, and with a claim to the rule of England too. These were just the kind of pickings to whet the appetite of a predator such as Harald; and sure enough, no sooner had he set foot on his native soil than he was throwing his weight around, and demanding a share of his nephew’s lands. Magnus, who was hardly the man to be intimidated by anyone, not even a celebrated hero such as his uncle, refused to give way; and for the next two years, amid a bewildering welter of compacts signed and broken, the two of them circled each other, sniffing for advantage. Then in 1046, Magnus died unexpectedly while out on campaign; and Harald succeeded uncontested to the rule of the lands he had fled sixteen years before. “Who knows,” he had reassured himself then, while on the run from the killing fields of Stiklestad, “my name may yet become renowned far and wide in the end.”36 And so it had proved.
Nor, having won his throne, did he intend ever to be forced into exile again. Harald’s record as king over the two decades of his reign would be a ruthless one. “Hardrada,” his subjects came to call him: “Hard-Ruler.” Funded by his plentiful stock of treasure, he threw himself with his customary swagger into all the traditional activities of a Viking king: slapping down his rivals among the local chiefs, waging pointless wars against his neighbours, incinerating their towns, and menacing their coastlines with showy dragon-ships. Even as the cult of St. Olaf went from strength to strength, and Trondheim began to swell with pilgrims drawn from across the Christian world, Harald remained wedded to the old ways, in which Christendom existed primarily as a resource to be plundered. Inevitably, then, as his reservoirs of Miklagard gold finally began to run out in the mid-1060s, he did as generations of Viking warlords had done before him: look around for a foreign milch-cow. Specifically, he looked to England.
As well he might have done – for the English by now were as rich as they had ever been. Although Edward had proved to be a doggedly unsensational king, pallid even, his reign had nevertheless served to provide his subjects with something truly precious: a respite from upheaval. Prosperity had returned to the kingdom: its trade had swelled, its wealth had grown, its towns had boomed. To be sure, there had been the odd alarm. In 1045, for instance, nervous of Magnus’s intentions, Edward had assembled a massive fleet to patrol the coastline of Kent. Then, early in the 1050s, a rupture between the king and the Earl Godwin had appeared to threaten civil war. But men on both sides, rather than storming headlong over the abyss, had opted instead to pause and draw back. “For they reflected that it would be a great piece of folly if they joined battle, for in the two hosts there was most of what was noblest in the kingdom, and they considered that they would be opening a way for their enemies to enter the country and to cause much ruin.”37 Relations between Edward and Godwin, however uneasily, had been patched up. Even though the earl himself had died soon afterwards, concord between his heirs and the king had been preserved. Edward, devoting himself to the pleasures of the hunt and to the occasional miraculous cure of the sick, had increasingly been content to leave the running of the kingdom to Godwin’s sons. And to two of them, in particular. One, Tostig, had been appointed to the rule of Northumbria; his elder, Harald, had inherited the earldom of Wessex. “Two great brothers of a cloud-born land, the kingdom’s sacred oaks,” they were hailed by one enthusiast. “With joined strength and like agreement they guard the bounds of England.”38
All in all, then, for Harald Hardrada, it might have been thought, this was a most unpromising state of affairs. But was it? Firmly rooted though both the Godwinssons might appear, the truth was that one of them, after a decade in power, was coming to be battered by increasingly stormy crosswinds. Northumbria, Tostig’s earldom, remained what it had always been: a realm much given to violence. In the savagery of the landscape, and in its remoteness from the kingdom’s West Saxon heartlands, there was held up a fitting mirror to the inveterate factionalism of the locals. Even the women, on occasion, would think nothing of sticking the heads of captured Scotsmen on poles. Hardly the place, in short, to look with much favour on a southern earl. Tostig, a man renowned for his courage and cunning, but also possessed of an often fiery temper, had tended to respond to hints of restiveness with all the forcefulness he could muster. As a result, he had ended up widely hated. By 1065, the Northumbrian lords had had enough. Raising an army, they marched first on York and then on Wessex itself. Edward, despite initial attempts to stand firm, had found himself powerless to resist their demands: that Tostig be deposed from his earldom and replaced with the Northumbrians’ own nomination, a young lord by the name of Morcar. Even Harald, recognising that his brother’s cause was doomed, had shrunk from making the kingdom bleed in Tostig’s defence. A statesmanlike call, no doubt – but one that had left Tostig himself with a burning, indeed almost frenzied, sense of grievance. That November, as the humiliated earl left England for exile in Flanders, he did so breathing vengeance on his brother.
And casting about for any foreign warlord who might be persuaded to assist him. The time for such treason was ripe. Edward, as Tostig well knew, had recently suffered a number of strokes, and by Christmas he was rumoured to be mortally ill. The moment of its king’s death was always a fateful one for any kingdom – but for England, that New Year, it promised to be especially so. For Edward had no son, nor even a daughter, to succeed him. Later ages would attribute this withering of his line to a godly vow of chastity, or else to his hatred of the Godwins – but neither explanation appears a likely one. Edward, in his own way, it seems, had grown close to Edith, and dependent upon her for advice – whether in matters of dress, or interior decoration, or the very gravest affairs of state. Perhaps, then, as many of the English were coming to fear, the otherwise inexplicable barrenness of their king’s marriage was a punishment imposed upon them for their sins. Edward, with shallow subtlety, had always exploited his childlessness for his own ends, promising the throne to rival candidates as and whenever he had required their assistance. Now, however, it seemed, with no obvious heir to the throne, there would have to be a reckoning. No wonder, then, as the New Year came and went, and reports from the royal sickbed steadily worsened, that the English looked forward to 1066 with a sense of mounting anxiety.
And all the while, beyond the northern seas, the King of Norway was biding his time. Soon enough fateful tidings were being brought to him from London. Edward was dead; and sitting upon his throne, consecrated and crowned with indecent speed, or so it was reported, was no man of royal blood, but Harald Godwinsson. Affront and opportunity: Harald Hardrada took the news as both. Dusting down the claim to England that he had inherited long back from his nephew, he duly began to plan for war. The precise object of his task force, however, he still kept close to his chest; for he intended that his hammer blow, when it fell, should come out of the blue. How gratifying it was, then, that emissaries from Tostig should have arrived at his court in the very midst of his preparations, proposing what he had already settled upon.39 How gratifying as well that even in the skies all things seemed to be moving in his favour: for in the spring there appeared above the lands of the North a mysterious star with a blazing tail. Well might men in England have been filled with dread at the sight, and reported seeing phantom ships out at sea:40 for there existed no more infallible portent of a looming crisis than a comet. By the late summer, when Harald’s forces were ready at last to embark, the omens had grown even more pointed. One warrior, a member of the king’s own bodyguard, dreamed that he saw an ogress holding a knife and a trough of blood; another that he saw a hag riding on a wolf, and that the wolf had a corpse in its mouth.
Admittedly, there were some among Harald’s followers who read these sanguinary visions as a foreboding, not of their lord’s victory, but rather of his doom: for the old carnivore was fifty, and long in the tooth. Not for Harald himself, however, any pessimistic notions that he might be venturing on an adventure too far – still less that the very era of the sea kings might be slipping him by. Naturally, as befitted the brother of a martyr, he had made sure to pray at Olaf’s shrine before departing, and to obtain some keepsakes by giving the saintly hair and nails a trim; but his most potent treasure, as he set sail for England, was one that any of his pagan ancestors would have hailed. “Land-Waster,” it was called: “a banner that was said to bring victory to whomever it preceded into battle.”41 Canute had owned one very similar, “woven of the plainest and white silk,” but on which a raven, in time of war, would mysteriously materialise, “opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet.”42 Deep magic and even deeper time: such banners spoke profoundly to the Northmen of both. Liegemen of Christ they might have become, but in the fluttering of Land-Waster there beat for them the reassurance that they were heroes still, just as their pagan ancestors had been.
By early September, Harald and his monstrous fleet of some 300 ships were doing what so many Viking expeditions had done before them, and slipping down the coast of Scotland bound for Northumbria. Only Tostig, who met up with Harald on his way, had been given due warning of his plans: everyone else in England was taken utterly by surprise. Landing just south of York, the invaders discovered to their delight that Harald Godwinsson was far away in Wessex, and that only Earl Morcar and his brother, Edwin, were on hand to confront them. On 20 September, “the thunderbolt of the North”43 struck at the Northumbrian forces and shattered them. Morcar and Edwin both survived their defeat; but they were now powerless to prevent Harald from forcing York into surrender, and taking hostages from among the leading citizens. Next, withdrawing some seven miles east of the city, to a convenient road junction by the name of Stamford Bridge, the Norwegian king paused, to await the submission of all Northumbria. With Morcar’s levies safely put out of action, and Harald Godwinsson presumed still far away to the south, it seemed there was nothing to worry about. Everything was going to plan. Land-Waster, which in the battle against the northern earls had carried all thunderously before it, was once again proving its invincibility.
But then, on 25 September, with an unseasonably warm sun standing high in the sky, Harald and Tostig caught sight of a sudden smudge on the western skyline – and realised that it was approaching them fast. Perhaps, they thought at first, a band of Northumbrians was riding in to submit; but soon, as the earth began to shudder, and the glittering of shields and mail coats emerged through the dust, “sparkling like a field of broken ice,”44 the appalling truth dawned. Somehow, impossible though it seemed, Harald Godwinsson had arrived at Stamford Bridge. Frantically, Harald ordered his men to withdraw to the far side of the river. Simultaneously, he sent messengers galloping with furious speed to where his ships lay moored twelve miles to the south, along with their store of mail shirts, and a whole third of his men. But it was too late. For a brief while, it was true, the enemy were held up at the bridge – by a single warrior, according to one account, who kept all at bay with the swinging of his axe, until an Englishman, with underhand cunning, “came up in a boat and through the openings of the planks struck him in the private parts with a spear.”45 The delay, however precisely it had been achieved, was sufficient for Harald to draw up his men on the flats of the far bank – but not for his reinforcements to join him. Even though the Norwegians fought savagely, they could have no real hope of victory without their armour. Sure enough, the river was soon flowing incarnadine. In the end, the survivors broke and fled for their ships. All the afternoon, the English hunted them down. As the light began to fade and crows wheeled upon the carrion-perfumed breezes of evening, there lay spread out beneath them a scene of quite exceptional slaughter. The English victory had been a work of almost utter annihilation. Of the three hundred and more ships that had arrived in England with Harald Hardrada, it was said, only twenty ever made it back to Norway.
And Harald himself, along with Tostig, lay among the mangled dead. So too, trampled down and stained with filth and gore, did his famous banner. At the end, Land-Waster’s magic had failed – and, as it turned out, failed for good.
The carnage at Stamford Bridge would long be remembered by the Northmen. As well it might have been – for never again would they cross the seas with the ambition of conquering a Christian land. The consigning of their most celebrated sea king to a foreign grave was a brutal measure of just how fast their horizons were closing in. Shortly before Harald Hardrada made his last stand, it was said, a party of horsemen had ridden out from the English lines and crossed to where the Norwegians stood facing them, lined up in a shield wall. One of the embassy, calling to Tostig, passed on a greeting from his brother, King Harald, and an offer: “one-third of all the kingdom.” Tostig, shouting back, demanded to know what his ally, King Harald Hardrada, might expect. “And the rider said, ‘King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant the Norwegian: seven feet of earth, or as much as he needs to be buried, bearing in mind that he is taller than other men.’”46
These were the last words ever spoken between the two brothers – for the rider had been none other than Harald Godwinsson himself. Wit and a defiant cool were the authentic qualities of a man who all his life had been passing “with watchful mockery through ambush after ambush.”47 In Harald’s scorning of the invader, however, and the granting to him only of sufficient earth to cover his bones, there had been something more than mere braggart play. The presumption that a land might indeed be sacred to those who trod it was neither an idle nor a novel one. So it was, for instance, that Earl Britnoth, opposing an earlier generation of Vikings at Maldon, had pledged himself ringingly to the defence of “folc and foldan”: “people and soil.”48 That the two were synonymous was a presumption widely shared across much of Christendom. Even in regions where borders and loyalties were infinitely more confused, and confusing, than in England, men had long been in the habit of identifying themselves with a “natio” – a nation. “People joined together by a single descent, custom, language and law,”49 one abbot, writing in the Rhineland a whole century before the Millennium, had defined the word.
True, there were certain “nations,” the Normans pre-eminent among them, whose beginnings were so recent that their mongrel character could never hope to be smoothed over – but this was a problem only for parvenus. Generally, among the more venerable peoples of Christendom, it was taken for granted that all those who shared a common homeland necessarily shared a common ancestry too; indeed, that they had been united by blood even back in the most primordial of times, when they too, like the pagans who were rumoured still to haunt the steppelands beyond the frontiers of the Rus, had been wanderers, without any roots at all. A convenient notion: for since no one could actually be certain what had happened in such an obscure and distant age, the field had been left free for the learned to rustle up any number of glamorous ancestors for themselves. Frankish genealogists, for instance, had traced the pedigree of their people back to the ancient Trojans; the Saxons, not to be outdone, had claimed to be the offspring of the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Most ingenious of all, perhaps, were the Scots, who bragged, with a formidable disregard for plausibility, that they were originally from Egypt, descendants of the same Pharaoh’s daughter who had discovered Moses in the bulrushes – and whose name, so they cheerfully insisted, in a manner designed to clinch their argument, had been Princess Scota.
Far-fetched such stories might have been – and yet they were no less potent for that. Indeed, the myths that peoples told about themselves, and the sense that they had of themselves as distinctive nations, tended to be much more deeply rooted than the monarchies that ruled them. Not that this, for an upstart dynasty, was necessarily a disadvantage. Back in 936, for instance, when Otto I succeeded to his father’s throne, he had been able to do so not merely by right of inheritance, but “as the choice of all the Franks and Saxons.”50 For Harald Godwinsson, in 1066, the benefits of posing as the people’s prince were even more self-evident. Lacking as he did so much as a drop of royal blood, his surest claim to legitimacy lay in the fact that his peers, and perhaps even the dying Edward himself, had all given him the nod.51 Nor, despite the mildly embarrassing detail that both his name and mother were Danish, could there be any doubt as to why he had been considered worthy to rule as the supreme representative of the English. Harald had been – as even his bitterest enemies acknowledged – “the most distinguished of Edward’s subjects in honour, wealth and power.”52 No one was better qualified to guard his countrymen against foreign invaders. “Our king”53 he was duly hailed in the wake of his slaughter of Hardrada’s army. Harald, at Stamford Bridge, had successfully defended both “folc and foldan.”
Yet even as he cleaned his sword of Norwegian blood, the circumstances that had brought him to the throne continued to menace his prospects. Back in 1063, in the wake of a hard-won victory over the Welsh, Harald had been presented with the head of his murdered enemy: a baneful and portentous trophy. Three years on, and his ability to claim the scalps of his adversaries had come to rank as the only certain measure of his fitness to rule. Not even with Hardrada safely fertilising the soil of Northumbria could he afford to relax. Other predators, other invaders, still cast their shadows. All that summer of 1066, Harald had been standing guard on the Channel – and now, with his warriors force-marched up the length of England, he was grimly aware that he had left his southern flank unprotected. Wearily, then, with the crows still flocking and clamouring above the fields of Stamford Bridge, he set about retracing his steps. He could have no doubts as to the urgency of his mission. Long before becoming king, Harald had made it a point “to study the character, policy and strength of the princes of France”54 – and of one in particular. Grant so much as the sniff of an opening, he had to reckon, and the Duke of Normandy would take it.
For certainly, by 1066, there could be no doubting that William ranked as a truly deadly foe. His apprenticeship was long since over. Seasoned in all the arts of war and lordship, and with a reputation fit to intimidate even the princes of Flanders and Anjou, even the King of France himself, his prime had turned out a fearsome one. So too had that of his duchy. Quite as greedy for land and spoils as any Viking sea king, the great lords of Normandy, men who had grown up by their duke’s side and shared all his ambitions, had emerged as an elite of warriors superior, in both their discipline and training, to any in Christendom. For a decade and a half William and his lieutenants had been probing southwards, engaging in a uniquely lethal and innovative style of combat, pitting themselves against those most proficient castle-builders, the castellans of Anjou. The buffer zone of Maine, which back in the early 1050s had passed almost entirely into Angevin hands, had been systematically broken to William’s will. Patience had been blended with daring; attrition with escapades; months spent ravaging vineyards with sudden midnight surgical strikes. “Terror had been sown across the land.”55 Nor, even with Maine securely in his grasp, had William been content to rest in his saddle. Campaigning had become a way of life for him, and for all those who followed his standard. Horses still had to be exercised, castles built, estates and towns and riches won. No surprise, then, that England, where the great men still fought on foot, and defended their wooden halls with little more than ditches, and were not organised for ceaseless warfare, should have served to beckon the restless and hungry duke. To most Englishmen, accustomed as they were to look for danger from across the northern seas, the notion that the upstart Normans might represent a genuine menace to their ancient and wealthy kingdom had appeared a fanciful one – but not to Harald. He, at any rate, had taken pains to analyse William at close quarters. He had made sure to observe in the field how the duke’s castles were built, and the aggressive use to which they could be put, and the ominous potential of the Norman cavalry. Indeed, he had even ridden with William on a raid into Brittany – and performed so heroically during the course of the expedition that he had been rewarded for his feats with a gift of armour from the duke himself.
This startling feat of espionage had been achieved only a couple of years before the fateful testing time of 1066. Quite what it was that had brought Harald to Normandy in the first place would later be much debated. The Normans would insist that he had been sent by Edward to promise William the succession; the English that he had travelled there of his own volition in order to negotiate a marriage alliance or perhaps the release of a hostage. It is not impossible that both claims were true. Altogether more certain, however, is that Harald, after a calamitous initial journey to Normandy – one that had featured both a shipwreck and a spell in the dungeon of a local princeling – had ended up as William’s guest. Though this might have been awkward for him, Harald was not his father’s son for nothing: and so it was, smoothly and with a fine show of Godwin opportunism, that he had set himself to a close study of the man whom he would long since have fingered as his likeliest rival for the English throne. Carefully veiling his own ambitions, he had encouraged William to spill out everything. Sure enough, the duke had openly acknowledged to his charming and attentive guest how he did indeed intend to press his right to England, by virtue of his relationship to his long-dead greataunt, the Lady Emma, and by sundry blessings that he claimed to have received from King Edward. Harald, more than content to play his rival for a fool, had duly sworn to support and advance William’s cause. His reward had been yet further gifts, and a ship back home to England. “Watchful mockery” indeed.
No wonder, then, in the early weeks of 1066, that William should have responded to the news of Harald’s accession with icy and bitter rage: he felt the fury of a man who had been cheated as well as robbed. Particularly shocking to him was the memory of how his guest, pledging his support, had done so with a gesture of awful and public solemnity, his hand laid on a relic box, a deed of fateful boldness: for what was an oath if not a challenge flung directly at God? “But alas” – as those who knew the new king had long appreciated – “he was a man always too quick to give his word.”56 It was all very well for Harald to claim that his oath of loyalty to William had been extorted from him under duress, and that he had been crowned entirely by right, according to the wishes and customs of the English people. Such details did not serve to absolve him, for there existed laws more awesome and binding than those of any mortal kingdom. William, at any rate, understood this well enough. Indeed, he had always capitalised powerfully upon it. He was a man, after all, who had turned the Peace of God so thoroughly to his own advantage, and imposed it with such an iron fist, that other princedoms, in comparison with Normandy, could appear to the Normans themselves mere bear pits, “rife with unbridled wickedness.”57 No surprise, then, that the duke, in his determination to secure his right to England, should have moved quickly to explore what else God might be able to do for him. He was acutely sensitive, in a way his wily but lighthearted rival was not, to the changing spirit of the times – a spirit that set a premium on the universal over the local. Certainly, he had no doubts that the laws of England could be made to seem as nothing when compared with the awful majesty of the one supreme law: that of God Almighty Himself. William, whose stern religiosity had always been combined with a talent for spotting trends, was a ruler surpassingly well fitted to appreciate the new enthusiasms that were animating the highest reaches of the Church – and what they might mean for himself. One of his bishops had sat alongside Leo IX at the Council of Reims. One of his abbots had been a school friend of Alexander II, the reigning Pope. The mighty tide of reform, which far from subsiding with Leo’s death had continued to swell and surge and advance, could hardly help, then, in the great crisis of 1066, but be a matter of surpassing interest to William.
Nor, in turn, could William fail to arouse a matching enthusiasm among reforming circles in Rome. In the summer of 1066, even as Harald Hardrada was preparing to unfurl Land-Waster, a very different banner was being readied for the Duke of Normandy. “The standard of St. Peter the Apostle”58 bore no moving ravens on it, nor any other hint of magic, and yet there could be no doubting its awesome and supernatural potency – for it had been blessed in person by none other than the Holy Father himself. A remarkable development. Barely a decade had passed since Leo IX, provoking a storm of shock and outrage, had ordered a papal banner to be carried for the first time into battle; nor, in the interim, had the controversy subsided. Although William’s ambassador had been received sympathetically in Rome, the suggestion that the Pope grant official backing to the invasion of England – a Christian kingdom! – had provoked furious opposition from his advisers. Not, however, from his most influential aide of all: the man who, even more than Alexander himself, was the true designer of papal policy. Hildebrand, by 1066, had risen far. His official rank, that of archdeacon, barely hinted at the degree to which he had become the pre-eminent, indeed the indispensable, power behind St. Peter’s throne.
“If you would thrive at Rome, say this at the top of your voice, ‘More than the Pope, I obey the lord of the Pope!’”59 Such was the homage, half mocking, half admiring, paid to Hildebrand. To the steely resolve that he had always possessed, and his abiding passion for the cause of reform, he brought what were by now years of experience garnered in the very cockpit of the Lateran. Though his own personal sense of sanctity was passionate and exalted, it had not prevented him from honing the often ruthless instincts of a natural politician. Certainly, Hildebrand had no doubts that a reformed England was a prize well worth fighting for. A veritable bog of simony, even by the standards of the rest of Christendom, it urgently needed draining. If William, who had always shown himself a model partner of the Church, could achieve that, then he would have served the cause not only of the reformers but of the sin-steeped English themselves. True, as Hildebrand freely acknowledged, “there are many among my brothers who revile me for this judgement, and charge me with labouring to bring about a terrible sacrifice of human lives”60 – but his own conscience was clear. The end would surely justify the means. An assault on England could worthily be ranked a holy war. And so it was that Hildebrand had leaned on the Pope, and the Norman duke had received his banner.
Naturally, even had Alexander II rebuffed William, the Normans would hardly have set about sheathing their swords. Already, at a series of councils held throughout the spring, the great lords of the duchy had committed themselves to the perilous enterprise of invasion: for they had been bred to hunger after land. Yet still they had their qualms. Some of these were practical; but others were more profoundly rooted. Greed and a joy in violence were not always easy to square with a devotion to the teachings of the Prince of Peace. Dread of the King whose sway embraced the universe, and whose conquest had been over death itself, was deep dyed within many Normans: they could not, as their pagan ancestors had done, gorge themselves on the riches of a Christian nation, and be content to do so as pirates, as adventurers, and nothing more. And of no one was this truer than William himself: for it was his ambition to kill an anointed king, and to encompass his crown, and then to be touched in his turn by the terrifying mystery of the chrism.
Doubtless, then, that summer of 1066, as the same winds that were sweeping the Norwegian war fleet towards England kept the Norman ships stranded impotently in harbour, the presence of St. Peter’s banner by William’s side would have served to reassure him that the Almighty had not, after all, abandoned his cause. Doubtless too, on the evening of 27 September, when the winds finally fell, and the fateful order was given to set sail, he would have reflected on the curious workings of Providence, that had kept him delayed for so long, and amid so many frustrations, only to grant him the perfect moment to make his crossing. For the Channel lay open. William, tucking into a hearty supper on board his flagship, could look forward to a thoroughly uneventful voyage. Meanwhile, his destination, where Harald had been stationed all summer on the expectation of his coming, was waiting ungarrisoned. No wonder, then, as the sun rose the following morning, and revealed to William a great forest of masts, his ships, and ahead of them the empty coastline of England, “he glorified God’s mercy from the very depths of his heart.”61
And felt himself perfectly justified, as his men began to wade through the shallows on to the beach, or else to coax their horses down unsteady gangplanks, in readying them for the great labour of conquest that lay ahead. William’s first move was a wholly predictable one: to throw up a couple of makeshift castles. One was raised within the mouldering remains of a Roman fort named Pevensey; the other on the far side of a bleak expanse of lagoons and salt flats, beside the fishing port of Hastings. From here, running along a ridge so fringed on either side by creeks that it ranked effectively as a peninsula, a single road led onwards to London. Harold, brought the devastating news of William’s landing while he was still far to the north, naturally expected the invaders to take it. He knew better than anyone in England, after all, what to dread from their way of war. Horsemen fanning out unopposed across the heartlands of Wessex. Granaries being plundered, towns and villages being torched. Rough and ready castles dotting the trace lines of devastation. Only if Harold could keep William bottled up could he hope to spare his “folc and foldan” such a fate. The knowledge of this, combined with his instinctive taste for taking his enemies by surprise, spurred him on ever southwards, without thought of pausing. No time to wait for reinforcements – still less to give his already battle-weary men any rest. Speed was of the essence.
Except that William, in reality, was heading nowhere. Shortly after setting up his headquarters in Hastings, he and his most trusted henchman, William fitz Osbern, had ventured out in person to reconnoitre the local terrain. The isolated nature of their base camp, the single road connecting them to the mainland, the marshes on either side of it: all these “they had boldly explored.”62 Stay where they were, they had quickly realised, and they were liable to end up trapped. If Harald did come against them, then they would have no choice but to meet him in open combat. And most seasoned commanders would have done anything to avoid that perilous business. Yet the very risks contingent on opting for battle, the desperate quality of the gamble, the chance that the whole course of the war, and indeed of William’s entire career, might be decided by a single moment were considerations positively to be embraced.
So it was, as the days passed, that the Normans did the very opposite of what had been expected of them: they hunkered down. Days passed, then a week. Occasionally, from across the creeks that bordered Hastings, black smoke would plume into the sky, the signature of one of William’s raiding parties – but otherwise the invaders did not stir. A second week passed. Still, their nerves taut, the duke and his chieftains and his warriors waited. Then, on the evening of Friday 13 October, scouts came galloping into the Norman camp, slipping down from their saddles with the urgency of their news. White dust had been glimpsed in the distance. The English army was closing in. The usurper was almost at the gates.
Almost – but not quite. Frantically, William recalled his foragers, then gave them and all his army a hurried command to prepare for battle. Dusk saw the Norman camp swept by clamour and confusion. Indeed, such was William’s own haste that he put his mail shirt on back to front. Yet naturally, despite the general mood of alarm, he remained the Duke of Normandy still, a man of iron: he did not surrender to panic. On the contrary – having almost been ambushed by Harald, he was now resolved to ambush Harald in turn. “There is no other way of escape.”63 With that brutal home truth ringing in their ears, William ordered his men to take the road from Hastings, to advance along the ridge that would bring them face to face with their approaching foes. There were still several hours to dawn when the Normans left camp. On they marched, three, four, five miles. Steadily, to their right, beyond dense woods, the sky was lightening. Still, though, no sign of the enemy. The sun began to rise. Then, at around eight o’clock, breasting a hill some six miles out of Hastings, the Normans saw a valley ahead of them, and the slope of a second hill, and there, emerging on to its crest, brilliant with gilded banners, the English vanguard. Did William, at such a sight, permit himself the very thinnest of smiles? No doubt – for it was all as he had hoped. Harald’s men were still assembling – rendezvousing for an intended final march on Hastings. Their ranks were unformed. “The woods all around glittered full of their spears.”64 The surprisers had been surprised.65
Yet still, in the Norman ranks, the awful inevitability of what now faced them would have caught at many a stomach. Pitched battle, though rare, ranked as the ultimate index of a man. Scarcely less to be dreaded than death or injury were shame and disgrace. It was not unknown for warriors, confronted by an enemy, to start vomiting – or else “to fake being sick.”66 William and his fellow war leaders, whose entire lives had been preparation for such a moment, were hardly the men to turn tail now; even so, gazing at the brow of the hill ahead of them, at the solid wall of shields that was blocking their way, at the bejewelled battle standard emblazoned with a warrior that marked the presence of Harald, they would have known better than to scorn their foe. No matter that the English way of war – “disdaining the solace of horses and trusting in their strength to stand fast on foot”67 – appeared to anyone raised in France quite hilariously primitive: the truth was that Harald had in his ranks fighters no less trained or deadly than the most seasoned Norman horseman. He too, like the lords of Constantinople and Kiev, commanded a bodyguard of Varangians: axe-wielding professionals, skilled in all the arts of evisceration, known by the English as “housecarls.”68 These ranked as perhaps the most formidable foot-soldiers in all Christendom, and they would have to be cut down if the invasion was not to fail – for only with Harald dead would any victory count as decisive. As the first Norman arrow showers rattled down upon the round shields of the English, and William’s infantry began climbing the hill ahead of them, to test the swing of the housecarls’ axes, he knew that his fate was no longer his own to control. It had passed into the hands of God.
Not that anyone would have expected the divine judgement to be delayed for long. Rare was the battle that lasted for more than an hour or so. The moment of crisis, when all would be decided upon a rumour or a sudden flight, was bound to sweep the field soon. And so it almost proved. Most shields were still unriven, most helmets without dents, most blades barely notched, when all of a sudden word began to pass through the Norman ranks that William had fallen. His men were thrown into panic. As they turned and started stumbling and slipping back down the hill, it seemed as though the retreat was on the verge of becoming a rout: for pockets of the English were leaving the shield wall to pursue them. All hung in the balance.
But William, though his horse had been brought down and he himself flung on to the ground, was not dead. Raising both his helmet and his voice, rallying his dispirited men, reminding them that they were warriors still, he succeeded in steeling his buckling line. And now it was the turn of the English to face a seeming breaking point. Those who had been pursuing their retreating adversaries down the hill found themselves suddenly turned upon. Surrounded, they proved easy meat. Hoofs and trampling feet pulped their bodies into the mud. The slope of the hill turned slippery, a shambles of viscera and broken limbs. For a second time, it seemed as though the battle was decided. But just as the Normans had been rallied, so now did the English refuse to flee. Harald’s great banner still fluttered defiantly in the breeze. The shield wall, though sorely depleted, held. The day remained unresolved.
And even as the hours continued to pass, and the sun slowly to set, and the shadows to lengthen over the increasingly corpse-strewn slope of the battlefield, the confusion did not cease. “It was,” as one Norman would express it later in stupefied terms, “an unheard-of kind of combat, with one side launching ceaseless attacks and manoeuvres, the other standing firmly as though rooted to the ground.”69 Not all the exhaustion of men weighed down by the great weight of their shields and helmets and coats of iron could serve to diminish the desperate savagery of the battle. An hour before sunset, and still William’s men were hurling themselves against the English, their spears splintered, as William’s own was, their swords no less “dyed with brains and blood”70 than their duke’s. Yet still the housecarls stood firm, swinging with their double-headed axes, bludgeoning their assailants, hacking through metal and flesh and bone. Certainly, planted as they were upon their hill, they could not hope to win – but then again, merely to hold their position, to win through to the night, to force a draw, would rank almost as a victory. William, isolated as he was in a hostile county, and with the sea at his back, could not afford a stalemate. Only succeed in standing firm until the coming of dusk, then, and Harald would most likely win the war.
But he did not last the hour. Many stories would later be told about his end; one, the most repeated, had him being hit in the eye by an arrow.71 Whether true or not, it is certain that Norman horsemen, trampling Harald down, left him as just one among a heap of corpses piled around the toppled royal banner, just one among the fallen on a day of slaughter fit to put even Stamford Bridge into the shade. As darkness fell, and what was left of the English turned at last and fled into the gathering darkness, to be hunted throughout the night by William’s exultant cavalry, it was the reek of blood and emptied bowels, together with the moans and sobs of the wounded, that bore prime witness to the butchery. Come the morning, however, and daylight unveiled a spectacle of carnage so appalling that even the victors were moved to pity. “Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in gore.”72 So hacked about was Harald’s own body, and so disfigured the face, that it could barely be recognised.
Fit image of the mutilation with which the kingdom itself had been served. True, not all the lords of England had fallen at Hastings; nor had their fight been brought wholly to an end by the slaughter. Yet with Harald dead, and his brothers fallen beside him, and his most loyal followers too, there was no one left to coordinate the resistance. The Normans, with their predators’ nostrils ever sensitive to the scents of weakness and despair, were hardly the people to let a wounded foe slip free. By Christmas Day, William was sitting in the same abbey where Harald had been crowned at the beginning of the year, to receive a crown of his own. Within the church itself, the moment of his coronation was greeted, as was the English custom, with a great cry of acclamation, a thunderous acknowledgement that the Norman duke now ruled as the anointed heir to Alfred and Edgar and Edward; but outside, in the streets, William’s guards mistook the shouting for a riot, and set about assaulting the locals and torching their houses. It was a brute reminder to the conquered English of the true source of their new king’s legitimacy.
To foreign observers as well, William appeared merely one more in a long line of northern predators, and his winning of a crown a feat of robbery such as any Viking chieftain might have revelled in. “The Duke crossed the cold channel,” as one Dane put it, “and reddened the bright swords.”73 Yet that was not how William himself saw his great exploit. At the most awe-inspiring moment of his life, as he was crowned on the very anniversary of the birth of Christ, the new king had begun to tremble uncontrollably, betraying for the first and only time in his life, perhaps, a sense of fear and self-doubt. Hearing screams rise from outside the abbey, even as he could feel the chrism impregnating him with its sacral charge, William would surely have dreaded with a sudden certitude that his offences were rank, that God had not blessed him with His favour at all, and that the blood through which he had waded, the filth and horror and stench of it, was charged eternally to his soul. The moment had passed – and William had been left William still. Yet he did not forget the experience. Years later, when a jester saw the king sitting “resplendent in gold and jewels,” and shouted out, “Behold, I see God! behold, I see God!,”74 he had been whipped for his joke. It was not the blasphemy that had caused such grievous offence, but rather the implied mockery of William’s most profoundly held conceit: that he had been raised to the throne of England by the hand of Providence.
If the Normans, who knew that in truth it was their own sword arms which had won their bastard duke the crown, sometimes found this hard to take, then so did the English. William’s coronation oath, that he would uphold the laws and customs of his new subjects, had been sworn with all due solemnity – and sure enough, for the first few years of his reign, he did indeed attempt to include them as partners within his new regime. But the English earls could never quite forgo a taste for revolt – with the result that, soon enough, an infuriated William was brought to abandon the whole experiment. In its place, he instituted a far more primal and brutal policy. Just as his ancestors had cleansed what would become Normandy of its Frankish aristocracy, so now did William set about the systematic elimination from England of its entire ruling class. The lands of the kingdom – its “folc and foldan” – were henceforward to be in the charge of Normans, and no one else. This, however, as a feat of dispossession, owed less to the example of Rollo than to William’s well-honed mastery of the cutting edge. No longer was England to remain isolated from the revolution that had so transformed the princedoms of France. Pevensey and Hastings were destined to prove only the first of the castles raised by the conquerors. The proficiency of William fitz Osbern, in particular, was noted by the English as a grim and fearsome thing: “for he built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse.”75Which was putting it mildly: for the task of the Norman lords, set as they were amid a sullen and fractious people, was no different in kind to that of the most upstart castellan in France.
In England, however, it was not just scattered hamlets and villages that needed to be broken, but a whole kingdom. In the winter of 1069, when the inveterately rebellious Northumbrians sought to throw off their new king’s rule, William’s response was to harry the entire earldom. Methods of devastation familiar to the peasantry of France were unleashed across the north of England: granaries were burned, oxen slaughtered, ploughs destroyed. Rotting corpses were left to litter the road. The scattered survivors were reduced to selling themselves into slavery, or else, if reports are to be believed, to cannibalism. Even enthusiasts for William’s rule confessed themselves appalled. “On many occasions,” wrote one of them, “I have been able to extol him according to his merits, but this – this I dare not praise.”76
And yet, as William might legitimately have pointed out, the practice of ravaging was an ancient one in England. Edgar had done the same – and he was remembered as “the Peaceable.” Hard and ruthless “the Conqueror” might be, but for all that, he was no Harald, given to breaking his promises lightly. The oath he had sworn at his coronation, to uphold the laws of England, was one that he would labour all his life to keep. In his determination to keep together his new realm, its unity, its public order and its peerless administration, William was indeed a king in the most formidable tradition of the Cerdicingas. Duke of Normandy too, and favourite of the reformers in the Lateran; he was a ruler of many parts. No statesman of his age was less the prisoner of the past – or more adept at turning it to his own ends. Tradition and innovation: would both continue to be exploited by William with a trail-blazing facility. That his reign was destined to prove one perpetual experiment, an attempt to weave a tapestry from a multiplicity of different strands, whether drawn from England, or Normandy, or Rome, would ultimately serve to render his achievements only the more lasting. He might have been the bastard descendant of pirates – but he would end up master of the most formidable instrument of royal power in the whole of Christendom. He had dared – and he had won.
True, doubts as to the price paid for this victory were never altogether dispelled. “For what has a man profited,” as Abbot Hugh of Cluny wrote pointedly to William, “if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?”77 Even Hildebrand himself, the very man who had pushed for the Conqueror to be granted a papal banner, appears to have felt a slight measure of queasiness at the sheer scale of the bloodletting that he had helped to sponsor. In 1070, only a few months after the harrying of Northumbria, a papal legate imposed a public penance on all who had fought at Hastings. Shortly afterwards, in a further show of expiation, the foundations of a new abbey began to be dug on the very site of the fateful battle. The altar, so William had decreed, was to stand precisely where Harald had fallen: a command that required the entire top of the hill to be levelled. Religiosity, arrogance, and a quite awe-inspiring monumentalism: the new monastery combined them all. If it was intended to express contrition, then so too was it designed to overawe. “Even a Greek or Saracen,” claimed one Norman, describing the Conqueror’s prodigious sponsorship of churches, “might find himself impressed.”78 As well he might. The great buildings that William could afford to build, unprecedented engineering experiments raised in stone, were indeed on a scale to compare with anything to be found in Constantinople or Córdoba. So too was the state that he ruled. No matter that he had founded it, like Battle Abbey, upon a field of blood – its foundations were destined to last.