Post-classical history


The question of the succession to Edward is clouded by uncertainty and lack of conclusive evidence, but this has not prevented innumerable scholars from attempting to assess the legitimacy of the competition. In a sense, the question is irrelevant, since the problem was ultimately to be resolved by force, but the various possibilities are of some importance in accounting for the actions of the people involved. In the mid-eleventh century there was no right of primogeniture in England either for the throne or in family inheritance to the extent that there was in Normandy and some other parts of Europe. Kingship was elective, though with a prejudice in favour of candidates from the ruling house. The situation regarding kingship in England was set out concisely by the monk and homilist Ælfric at the end of the tenth century:

No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to elect whom they like; but after he is consecrated king, he has authority over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke off their necks.viii

The child Edgar was only one of many who saw themselves as rivals for England, though lineally he may have had the best claim. He was of the royal blood, throne-worthy. The title of ‘atheling’ was normally reserved for the sons of reigning kings, and Edward the Exile had never reigned. The fact, therefore, that he was known as the Atheling in King Edward’s lifetime is significant and implies that Edward regarded him as a likely successor – which in itself undermines William’s claim that the king had given his promise to him. Lineage, however, was only one of several factors to be considered before a new king of England was crowned. Descent from the royal line of Wessex was important; but it was far from being the most important requirement. The emphasis throughout the pre-conquest period seems to have been on the most credible candidate whenever there was a choice, as there usually was. The main consideration was the safety of the kingdom; in considering the claims of Edgar, the king’s councillors would not have forgotten the invasions and ultimate conquest that had followed the child Æthelred’s accession in 978. In the past a deceased king’s eldest son might have been passed over, because he was too young, because it was not felt that he was the best man to defend the realm or because there was a later son by a more powerful mother. It was said that Emma had made it a condition of her marriage to Æthelred that their sons should take precedence over his sons by his previous marriage. In fact, Æthelred was succeeded by Edmund Ironside, a son of the earlier marriage, because Emma’s sons were not of an age to oppose Cnut nor on the spot. Anglo-Saxon kings tended to die young, leaving eldest sons of tender years. King Alfred himself had succeeded three elder brothers who had held the throne in turn, one of whom (Æthelred I) had left at least one son, partly because it had been so set down in the will of his father, King Æthelwulf, but mainly because he was deemed the best available defender of the kingdom against the Danes at that time and his nephew was young and untried. If Alfred had not already proved himself a competent general, it is probable that his father’s will would have been disregarded or at least challenged. Later, his own eldest son and successor had to deal with the resentment of the cousin who felt his claims had been set aside. However, Edgar, despite his youth, was still a factor, as was shown by his election as king by all the councillors in London, as soon as the death of Harold at Hastings was known.

The main considerations in the selection of the heir were royal blood; nomination by the late king; election by the Witan; and the ability to defend the kingdom. With the death of Edward the Exile, the king’s councillors were left with no one who fulfilled all of them. Edgar, grandson of King Edmund Ironside, had the royal blood, but was not, by age, upbringing or experience, qualified to undertake the land’s defence. There were the two sons of King Edward’s own sister, Godgifu, who, like her brothers, had been brought up in Normandy and had been married, first to Count Drogo of the Vexin, and, after his death, to Count Eustace of Boulogne, the author of the fracas at Dover. Her elder son, Walter, had succeeded his father as Count of the Vexin, but had been offered the county of Maine in his wife’s right on the death of her brother the Count of Maine in 1051; Walter and his wife died by what was reputed to be poison shortly after William of Normandy’s conquest of Maine to which, he claimed, he had been promised the succession himself. The fact that Walter was so close in line to the English throne and that he and his wife were in Norman custody at the time they died did nothing to allay the suspicions that their deaths inevitably aroused. Orderic Vitalis says carefully that they were poisoned ‘by the evil machinations of their enemies’, of whom William was certainly one of the most prominent; he repeats the allegation later in his history. Poisoning was certainly not uncommon at the Norman court; William of Jumièges suggests that Duke Richard III was poisoned by his brother, William’s father, Duke Robert. Walter’s younger brother, Ralph, had followed his uncle Edward to England shortly after his succession and had been made Earl of Hereford; he was known in England, unenviably, as Ralph the Timid, and if he was of a naturally unwarlike disposition, the rule of an earldom on the Welsh marches can have done little to encourage him. He died in 1057, in the same year as Edward the Exile, leaving an infant son and was therefore out of the running, though in view of his reputation, it is unlikely that he would have received many votes in the Witan anyway.

Outside the king’s close relatives, there were a number of other claimants. One of the most formidable, as well as the most absurd in lineal terms, was Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway, known to history as Harald Hardrada or Harald Hardcounsel. His claim went back beyond King Edward to the reign of King Harthacnut who, he maintained, had made an agreement with Harald’s nephew, King Magnus Olafson of Norway, before Harthacnut returned to England to claim his crown and while he was at war with Magnus for the crown of Denmark. By this agreement, whichever of the two of them should outlive the other would inherit the other’s kingdom (or kingdoms, since Magnus continued to claim Denmark as well as England by right of this agreement); and under it, Harald maintained his claim to both the English and the Danish crowns as the heir and successor of King Magnus. Much of Harald Hardrada’s time as King of Norway was absorbed by his struggle with King Sweyn Estrithson for the Danish crown; if he had chosen to enforce his English claim earlier, he would have been a formidable threat, for he was regarded as beyond doubt the strongest and most dreaded warrior of his age and had, during a long life of battle and plunder in most parts of Europe and Byzantium, earned a reputation for courage, guile, cruelty and greed second to none. In his youth, after the death of his half-brother, King Olaf (later St Olaf), at the battle of Stiklestad where he also fought, he had fled through Sweden and the Viking states in Russia to Byzantium where he joined, and very soon captained, the renowned Varangian Guard, the elite Scandinavian bodyguard of the emperor. The Varangians’ reputation for expertise in every form of warfare was well deserved, and their skills were kept well honed by the continual wars, internal and external, that the Byzantine emperors were engaged in. They were also specialists in the acquisition of plunder, from which Harald is reputed to have amassed a colossal fortune. He left Byzantium in 1043, returned through Kiev, marrying Grand Prince Yaroslav’s daughter Elisabeth on the way, and reached Sweden in 1045. His immediate goal was the throne of Norway, held then by his nephew, Magnus Olafsson; after much negotiation, bloodshed and chicanery he eventually achieved a joint kingship with Magnus, inheriting the whole kingdom when Magnus died childless in 1047. Harald was then free to continue his struggle with Sweyn Estrithson for the throne of Denmark. His designs on England were well known there.

Sweyn Estrithson, son of Cnut’s sister Estrith, had his own claim to England to maintain. As Cnut’s nephew – who had survived Cnut’s sons – he was heir to a former King of England and he asserted that Edward the Confessor had promised that he should inherit if Edward died childless. There are reasons to doubt the likelihood of this promise. Sweyn was closely connected with the Godwin family. His father, Ulf, husband of Cnut’s sister Estrith, was brother of Godwin’s wife Gytha; Godwin had certainly fostered Sweyn’s brother Bjorn in his family, and Bjorn had made his home in England and prospered there, until he was treacherously murdered by Godwin’s eldest son, Sweyn. Sweyn Estrithson may also have spent part of his boyhood at least in the Godwin household. The idea that Edward would voluntarily bequeath his throne to Godwin’s nephew by marriage, even though he was Cnut’s heir in Denmark, is implausible. When Sweyn appealed to Edward in 1049 for ships to help him in his struggle with Magnus of Norway, and Godwin sensibly recommended sending them since Magnus was much stronger than Sweyn and was known to be planning an invasion of England, Edward refused to help (with, according to the D Chronicle, the support of all the people). On the other hand, Edward spent much of the early part of his reign under threat from Danish invasions, since Sweyn Estrithson had expected to succeed his cousin Harthacnut (from whom he claimed he also had a promise of the crown). A promise of succession to Sweyn would have defused the immediate situation, left Sweyn free to pursue his warfare with Magnus and Harald Hardrada, and enabled Edward to stand down his fleet and stop levying the unpopular Danegeld. If he made the undertaking (and he seems to have been remarkably free with promises of the crown, which in fact he had no right to give), he probably never expected to have to honour it. The life expectancy of the Danish kings was poor.

The claims of Harald Hardrada and Sweyn Estrithson should be seen in the context of eleventh-century Scandinavia. Even a brief scrutiny of the history of Denmark, Norway and Sweden around this time would be enough to show that constitutional propriety and primogeniture played little part in the choice of their kings; even a remote connection with a previous monarch was sufficient to support a claim, and the outcomes were usually decided by force, not justice. The success of Cnut was still vividly remembered by the English. This should be borne in mind when considering the claims of the next contestant for the throne of England, who was also, if more remotely, of Scandinavian origin.

The claim of William of Normandy was based on the marriage of his great-aunt, Emma, to King Æthelred. This, he contended, made him Edward’s kinsman and certainly he was cousin to the king at one remove, though not in the legitimate line of succession. In addition his family had given shelter to Emma, her husband Æthelred and her children when they were exiled from England, though, as has been noted, there is no evidence that any grant of land was ever made to Edward and Alfred while they were exiles in Normandy. In gratitude for the generosity of Normandy, William’s chroniclers allege, and in recognition of the outstanding abilities and merits of William himself and of the close and loving friendship between them, Edward promised him the succession when he returned to England. In the words of William of Poitiers:

it was also through [William’s] support and counsel that, on the death of Harthacnut, Edward was at last crowned and placed on his father’s throne, a distinction of which he was most worthy, as much through his wisdom and outstanding moral worth as by his ancient lineage. For the English, when they had discussed the question, agreed that William’s arguments were the best, and acquiesced in the just request of his envoys to avoid experiencing the might of the Normans.ix

It may be asked how close and loving a friendship could be between a man of forty and a boy of thirteen, how much of the might of Normandy could have been spared from its own problems in 1041 for Edward’s assistance (had it been needed, which it was not), or how Edward managed to detect in the beleaguered boy duke of Normandy the outstanding abilities that fitted him for kingship; when Edward left Normandy, the prospects of William surviving his minority and the many plots against him long enough to take control of Normandy were remote. It is, of course, perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which a middle-aged man might say lightly to a child cousin that he should be his heir, especially if there was then little prospect of there being a throne to inherit or of the child surviving long enough to inherit it. It was William’s contention that the promise was made, was made seriously and was renewed after Edward succeeded to the throne. If so, the timing of this renewal is problematic.

It has usually been assumed that the northern version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) was right in stating that William came on some sort of state visit to England in 1051, after the outlawry of the Godwin family in September, and that this was the occasion of the promise, though it should be noted that William’s biographer, D. C. Douglas, has suggested that this entry in the Chronicle may have been a late interpolation; he points out that the surviving manuscript of D is almost certainly post-1100 and thus must have been copied from another version, now lost.x There are, however, grave difficulties with this 1051 scenario. Setting aside the peculiarity of this reference in the version of the Chronicle furthest from the scene of events in the south, why did the two main Norman chroniclers (William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers) fail to mention the visit? Both were anxious to include in their accounts anything that tended to strengthen William’s claim. It has been suggested that they omitted it because it showed William as a suitor to Edward, which would have demeaned him. This seems most improbable. There would have been nothing demeaning in the ruler of Normandy paying a state visit to his cousin in England and if, while he was there, the English king had decided to make him his heir, this would have given him more, not less, prestige and would have been no more than they claimed had already happened in Normandy.

There is then the claim of William of Poitiers that the king’s promise was formally witnessed by the most important men in England, namely Siward of Northumbria, Leofric of Mercia, Godwin of Wessex and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. There was no occasion, certainly not in 1051, when all these people could have been assembled at court holding these particular offices. In late 1051 Earl Godwin was in exile, and it was not Stigand who was Archbishop of Canterbury but the Norman Robert of Jumièges, who might indeed have been happy to witness such a promise; it is highly unlikely that either Siward or Leofric would have been. Rumours of such an intention or such a promise might well explain why both Siward and Leofric declined to oppose Godwin’s return in the following year, since he of all of them had most strongly opposed the Norman faction at court. If, on the other hand, such a promise had been publicly given and formally witnessed, as this account implies, it is even more incredible that there should be no record of it in any of the English sources. The only point in favour of this extraordinary story is the indication, oblique though it is, that William of Poitiers realized that the crown was not Edward’s to give away on his own whim. The alleged assent of the foremost men of the kingdom might be regarded as an earnest of the Witan’s reaction later on. It has been suggested that Edward’s promise might have been witnessed in two stages, at the time he gave it by Leofric and Siward and later, in 1052, by Godwin and Stigand as a condition of Godwin’s reinstatement, and that this would account for Godwin giving hostages at this point, but the idea is unconvincing.xi Godwin, when he returned, was in a position of strength; he would not have needed to make such a concession.

There is also the allegation that at this time Edward gave hostages to William as a pledge of his promise; the hostages are named as Wulfnoth, the youngest son of Earl Godwin, and Hakon, the son of Godwin’s eldest son, Sweyn. Nothing is known of Hakon. Wulfnoth certainly did pass into William’s hands as a hostage at some stage, since he spent his life in Norman captivity, was released by William on his deathbed and promptly re-imprisoned by his son William Rufus. But at what stage and why he was handed over is not clear. It is highly unlikely to have been in 1051. At that date, he must have been little more than a boy, and it is very improbable that Godwin, removing all his family to exile in Flanders in September 1051, should have overlooked this one son or obliged Edward by leaving him to become a hostage. However, the Chronicle (E) does say that when the king and Godwin were reconciled in 1052, they exchanged hostages, a normal procedure on such an occasion; this is the most likely time for Wulfnoth and Hakon to have been handed over and sent by Edward to Normandy for safe-keeping. The idea that the hostages were given to William by Edward in 1051 in support of his promise is in any case a little ridiculous – and if his promise was, as maintained by the Normans, witnessed by all the chief men in the kingdom, why only Godwin family hostages? Where were the hostages, for example, from the family of Leofric? In any case, a man would hardly be expected to give hostages to another on whom he was conferring a massive favour; and even if he did, it would normally be a two-way affair; there is no indication of any hostages being given by William to Edward.

The most convincing argument against William’s visit in 1051, however, is William’s own situation in Normandy. He had succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy in 1035 at the age of seven, on the death of Duke Robert who was returning from pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and had had a troubled minority, mainly through the resentment of legitimate adult kinsmen who objected to the succession of a bastard child, partly through the ambition of those who aspired to dominance of the duchy through the guardianship of the child duke. Several of those originally appointed his guardians met violent or suspicious deaths, and there was more than one attempt on his own life. During his minority, all order and prosperity in the duchy disintegrated. The idea that William was in any way responsible for Edward’s return to the English throne, as his chroniclers claimed, can hardly be borne out by the situation in which the thirteen-year-old duke found himself in 1041. In 1046 he was confronted by a rebellion raised by his cousin, Guy of Brionne, a grandson of Duke Richard II, who was strongly supported by many of the Norman nobility. William was forced to flee and to ask for the help of his overlord, King Henry of France, under whose leadership he confronted and defeated the rebels at the battle of Val-ès-Dune in 1047. It was his effective coming of age. Guy took refuge in his castle of Brionne, and it took William about three years to eject and banish him. In the meantime, King Henry demanded his quid pro quo in the form of William’s help against another turbulent vassal, Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou. William provided the help, but found himself, in consequence, with another dangerous enemy to the south of him in the form of Martel, who lost little time in challenging him. He was joined in this by King Henry who had clearly decided that William was, after all, even more dangerous than Martel. From 1050 onwards, William was under constant threat from both. If his biographer, D. C. Douglas, is correct, in 1051 he was occupied with the sieges of Alençon and Domfront on his frontier, and also with marrying the Count of Flanders’ daughter, Matilda, a matter of much delicate negotiation since they were declared by the Church to be within the prohibited degrees of affinity. His dealings with the defenders of Alençon and Domfront were less delicate; the former defied him by beating pelts over the battlements in allusion to his birth as the bastard of a tanner’s daughter. William retaliated by chopping off their hands and feet when the castle eventually capitulated. The sieges of Alençon and Domfront are placed by Douglas in the autumn and winter of 1051, precisely the time at which the visit to England would have taken place.xii William must also have been aware that he was likely in the near future to face another family rebellion closer to home from his uncle, the Count of Arques; the rebellion eventually broke out in 1052 or 1053, supported by the King of France and by a powerful coalition of neighbouring princes. It has been suggested that William’s English ambitions and the possibility of a shift in the balance of power in France if he won the English throne had alarmed other northern French rulers. The Count of Arques’ rebellion was crushed and Arques himself exiled for life. From that date, however, until Martel and the king both died in 1060, William was under constant attack from both of them. The idea that in the midst of these threats to his rule, actual or threatened, William would have contemplated leaving his duchy undefended for long enough to pay a visit to his cousin in England, even with the possibility that he might receive the promise of a throne in the course of it, is quite simply incredible. There was no Channel tunnel in the mid-eleventh century; if William had come to England in late 1051, he ran the risk of being trapped there by contrary winds for as long as he was prevented in 1066 from launching his invasion fleet. He could not be sure of getting home in a hurry if Martel or the French king, both constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to attack, broke his borders. In 1051 Edward, though by contemporary standards an elderly man, was in good health. He hunted regularly and led an active life. There was no imminent likelihood of his death. William, constantly in the battlefield, was much more at risk. Never a man to act without careful consideration, he would have been insane to risk his bird in the hand (Normandy) for the possibility of a bird in the bush (England) at this particular juncture. Promises, after all, like piecrusts, are made to be broken. Edward can hardly have been pleased by William’s marriage to the daughter of a man whom he regarded as an enemy and hostile to England; and his action in sending into Hungary so shortly afterwards to urge the return of Edward the Exile indicates clearly that, whether or not he had made any promises to William in the past, he was prepared to break them in the interests of a peaceful succession that would be acceptable to his councillors.

There is another way in which a promise to William might have been conveyed. In 1051 Robert of Jumièges succeeded Eadsige as Archbishop of Canterbury and set off for Rome to collect his pallium from the Pope. The pallium, a narrow band of white lamb’s wool, was bestowed on metropolitans and primates by the Holy See and was the symbol of the power delegated to them by the Pope. (In the Middle Ages, popes made a handsome income from the fees they charged recipients for it.) It has been suggested that Robert travelled south via Normandy, perhaps with a verbal message from Edward to William, and according to William of Jumièges this was what happened. It is even possible that he might have ventriloquized one, in a spirit of wishful thinking. However, it is relevant to note that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever on the English side of any party supporting a Norman successor, although the question of the succession must have been becoming more urgent every year. The first indication of any action in the matter is the move to repatriate Edward the Exile.

The final claimant to the throne was, of course, Harold Godwinson. It is fairly clear that William had set his sights on the English crown quite early in his career; it is less certain when Harold realized that he could be a contender, possibly not until after the death of Edward the Exile, since he appears to have supported and indeed negotiated for his return to England. He may not even have thought of it then. He might well have thought that he could re-enact the part played by the hero of the Old English epic poemBeowulfwho, after the death of his lord, King Hygelac, acted as guardian to Hygelac’s youthful son Heardred until he came of age. As guardian to Edgar during his minority, his own position would be assured and he would be well placed to defend the kingdom and, indeed, the interests of the Godwin family. At some time, however, the idea of his own succession must have occurred to him and to others. In terms of blood lineage, he had, of course, no possible claim, and never pretended to any. None the less, even in these terms, his claim was better than William’s. William was the great-nephew of a woman who had married a reigning king; Harold was the brother of a woman who had married a reigning king. Neither of them had a drop of English royal blood. It has been suggested that Harold might have made a claim through his Danish blood, because his mother was a kinswoman of Cnut; but this claim would depend on the rather doubtful proposition that Edward had succeeded to the English throne as half-brother of Harthacnut who had brought him back from exile, not as son of Æthelred. Even if this were to be allowed, his cousin, Sweyn Estrithson, had a far more direct claim through the Danish line. Apart from blood lineage, Harold had the advantage of having been born in wedlock. The conditions for kingship had been set out at an ecclesiastical synod held in England in the presence of papal legates in 786, and specified that ‘Kings are to be lawfully chosen by the priests and elders of the people, and are not to be those begotten in adultery or incest’. These conditions had not always been observed in the past; there had, for example, been considerable doubt over the legality of Edward the Elder’s marriage to his first wife, Ecgwynn, and thus over the legitimacy of Athelstan, but when such doubts were ignored, it was usually for good reasons.

Harold’s chief claim, however, was not of blood or legitimacy; it was that he was ‘lawfully chosen’. In a situation in which the only remaining member of the West Saxon blood line was a boy, and the kingdom faced the likelihood of invasion as in the days of Alfred and his immediate successors, the elders of the people looked for a candidate who had both the administrative ability and the military experience to defend the country. In 1066 the elders of the people, personified by the Witan, faced with the prospect of invasion on two fronts, had urgent need to find such a candidate. Harold qualified on both counts. He had to all intents and purposes ruled England efficiently as subregulus or under-king for many years (after the death of Gruffydd following Harold’s Welsh campaign, the Welsh swore fealty and obedience jointly to Edward and Harold); and he was beyond question the most experienced and able military commander in the country. He also appears to have been genuinely popular. The Waltham chronicler (admittedly probably as biased in one direction as William of Poitiers was in the other, but writing after the conquest when Harold had already been defeated and praise of him was not encouraged) records that he was elected king by unanimous consent ‘for there was no one in the land more knowledgeable, more vigorous in arms, wiser in the laws of the land or more highly regarded for his prowess of every kind.’xiii The more unbiased Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C and D) recorded his election in terms that are not those in which one describes a usurper, though these, like the Waltham Chronicle, must have been written after Hastings:

And the wise king entrusted that kingdom to the high-ranking man, Harold himself, the noble earl, who at all times faithfully obeyed his lord in word and deed, neglecting nothing of which the king had need; and here Harold was hallowed as king. And he enjoyed little stillness while he held the kingdom.

In the context of the times, and in a situation where the royal line had failed, his succession in England was no more irregular than that of Hugh Capet to the throne of France on the collapse of the Carolingian monarchy some years earlier. Hugh Capet was crowned on the recommendation of Archbishop Adalbéron:

Crown the Duke. He is most illustrious by his exploits, his nobility, his forces. The throne is not acquired by hereditary right; no one should be raised to it unless distinguished not only for nobility of birth but for the goodness of his soul.

Harold was already virtual King of England, to much the same extent that Hugh Capet had been virtual King of France in 987. William, who received news regularly from England, would have been aware for some time that Harold was likely to pose an obstacle to his ambition. The question of how to circumvent that obstacle must have exercised him greatly. He could hardly have hoped for the accident that delivered Harold into his hands.

The short story of the accident (which is only recorded in the Norman sources, though its essence has not been seriously challenged) was that Harold crossed the Channel, probably but not certainly in 1064, for an unknown reason. It has been suggestedxiv that the trip took place in late 1065, immediately after the exile of Tostig, on the grounds that William of Poitiers says that at this stage the king was very near death. Setting aside William of Poitiers’ doubtful veracity, Harold would have been extremely unlikely either to go on a pleasure trip or to make a diplomatic visit to Normandy to promise the crown to William when there had just been a major insurrection in England, as in 1065, and the king was very near death, especially if, as is assumed, he had designs on the crown himself by this time. The most reliable evidence indicates that Edward’s final illness began as a result of the exile of Tostig in 1065; after that, Harold would have been as mad to leave England as William would have been to leave Normandy in 1051, even if there had, in practical terms, been time to fit such a visit in between Tostig’s exile at the beginning of November 1065 and the king’s death on 5 January 1066. 1064, when he vanishes temporarily from the English chronicles altogether, is a much more likely date.

At all events, by storm or miscalculation, he was cast up on the coast of Ponthieu. The inhabitants of Ponthieu were well known as wreckers; this is confirmed even by William of Poitiers. There were many stories that lights were frequently shown at dangerous points of the coast to mislead sailors, since ships that were wrecked in their territory were legal prey and the sailors could be imprisoned or tortured for vast sums in ransom. Whether by storm or misleading lights, Harold’s ship foundered, and he and his companions were captured; he might have been able to extricate himself by payment of a ransom if one of his captors had not recognized him and betrayed him to the Count of Ponthieu, who immediately realized that in him he had a prize far out of the common and incarcerated him and his men in a dungeon. Someone (possibly one of Harold’s men, he is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry as moustached, the infallible sign of an Englishman) went to the neighbouring duchy of Normandy and told the duke, who was the Count of Ponthieu’s overlord, what had happened. William immediately ordered Guy of Ponthieu to hand Harold and his men over to him. He was rewarded by William with cash and land. Harold remained in Normandy for some time, was treated with honour by the duke, campaigned with him in Brittany (where, with great heroism, he rescued two of William’s soldiers from the quicksands), and left again for England after swearing an oath on the bones of the saints that he would support William’s claim to the English throne after Edward’s death. This, at least, is the version of the Norman chroniclers and of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Many explanations have been offered as to why Harold happened to be crossing the Channel at this particular moment. The Norman version (William of Poitiers) was that he was sent by King Edward to confirm his promise of the throne to the duke and did so voluntarily. An English version (Eadmer) is that he went on his own initiative to try to retrieve his brother and nephew who had been handed over to the duke as hostages. According to Eadmer, he went against the advice of the king, who warned him not to trust William. In the event he retrieved his nephew Hakon (of whom nothing is known and whose very existence is slightly suspect) but not his brother Wulfnoth, who remained in William’s custody. Yet another version is that he had gone sailing for diversion with no intention of going to Normandy, and had been caught and blown ashore by a storm. According to Henry of Huntingdon, he was on his way to Flanders, not Normandy; this plausible idea is not corroborated elsewhere. There is no possibility now of discovering the truth. One can only make a guess at the likelihoods. There is very little probability in the idea that he was sent by Edward to convey a promise and swear an oath that would have been repugnant to him. After the king, he was the most powerful man in the kingdom; if Edward had asked him to do such a thing, he would have had little difficulty in refusing or procrastinating. One modern apologist for William has offered the rather desperate explanation that he knew that if he refused to go, Edward would have sent his brother Tostig in his place.xv A message or an oath from Tostig, who had no support in England, would have been of little use to William; and moreover, if Harold were prepared to break his own oath on holy relics in his pursuit of the crown, he would surely have had few scruples about ignoring his brother’s. It would, in fact, have been very much better from Harold’s point of view that Tostig should have gone and sworn oaths. If Harold proposed to sail into Normandy with the intention of demanding Edward’s hostages back, he was more naive and trusting than history shows him to have been; William’s ambitions must have been common knowledge by this time, and Harold is described in the Vita Ædwardi as having made use of his foreign travels to acquire a detailed knowledge of European politics, with the comment that he had such an exhaustive knowledge of European princes that he could not be deceived by any of their proposals.xvi The idea that he was blown off course during a sailing trip is at least believable.

It is here, for the first time, that some help may be derived from the Bayeux Tapestry, for it begins at this point in the story. The first panel or frame shows King Edward sitting in his chair of state, holding his sceptre and apparently conversing affably with two men standing beside him. The taller and more impressive of these is not named but is assumed to be Harold, since in the next panel Harold is shown setting off for Bosham with his men. Harold’s conversation with the king seems to be amicable. This is the image that has been interpreted as Edward instructing Harold to travel to Normandy to confirm his promise to William. But there is absolutely nothing in the picture or the text to confirm this. There is, in fact, no text over the picture, which would as well fit any of the other explanations for his voyage; Harold might be asking permission to go on a fishing or hunting trip or to Flanders or proposing to go to redeem the hostages, though in that case the expression on the king’s face would perhaps be more concerned or anxious. If the mission were as important as the designation of the king’s successor, it would surely have been glossed; it would, after all, have been the foundation of the whole Norman claim.

The next few panels follow the standard version of the story: Harold arrives at Bosham, where there was a family manor, prays at the church there, eats and drinks with his companions, boards the ship and, with the sails ‘full of wind’, comes into the territory of Count Guy. Here he is arrested by Guy’s men and taken to Beaurain. There is no explicit mention of a storm, though the wind in the sails might be interpreted that wayxvii. The narrative then shows his transfer to the hands of William, his campaign with William in Brittany (including his rescue of two of William’s men from the quicksands) and finally the most important scene, the swearing of an oath to William. According to William of Poitiers, who alone gives a detailed account, this oath consisted of undertakings to support William’s claim to the throne, to act for him in England until the king’s death, to fortify Dover and other places that William would specify for the duke’s use and garrison them with Norman knights whom Harold would maintain, to marry the duke’s daughter and to send his sister into Normandy to marry a Norman. Immediately after this, he is shown returning home to England, where he has another interview with the king – but a very different king this time. He is drawn and haggard, the finger extended towards Harold no longer indicating merely conversation but rather admonition or accusation. Harold for his part is apologetic and contrite, his head bowed, his hands extended in an exculpatory gesture. It is impossible to misread this scene: the king has heard something that worries and distresses him greatly, Harold is apologizing and excusing himself. If Harold had gone in the first place to confirm promises and make vows on the king’s behalf, why should he be apologizing? We have seen him do this. The only obvious answer is that he did not go to do this, but he has, for whatever reason, sworn a vow and in so doing has landed himself in bad trouble with his king. It is interesting that, having portrayed the situation so graphically, the designer has not attempted to explain it; the legend overhead simply says ‘he [i.e. Harold] came to King Edward’. It is here, more than anywhere else, that the Tapestry is most ambiguous.

The only explanation that makes sense of everything is that offered by the monk Eadmer. According to him, Harold wanted to go to redeem the family hostages in Normandy and asked permission from the king to do so. The king apparently gave this reluctantly, but warned him that he would only bring misfortune on the whole kingdom and discredit upon himself, for ‘I know that the Duke is not so simple as to be at all inclined to give them up to you unless he foresees that in doing so he will secure some great advantage to himself.’xviii

The duke was not simple and he did indeed gain great advantage for himself. Without the oath sworn and broken by Harold, it is highly improbable that the Vatican could have been persuaded to turn an unprovoked attack on a neighbouring independent and peaceful kingdom into a holy war against a perjurer (if indeed it did, as we shall see in due course). And without papal backing, William’s success would have been much less likely.

It is extremely improbable that Harold would willingly and freely have sworn to the conditions recorded by William of Poitiers; as has been noted by previous historians, at least two of them would have amounted to treason against the present king. On the other hand, he was in a desperately precarious situation. As Eadmer points out, he was in danger whichever way he turned. He cannot have been unaware that his recent host, Guy of Ponthieu, had been captured by William after the battle of Mortemer and had been held incarcerated in Normandy for two years until he freed himself by swearing allegiance to the duke and accepting him as his overlord; nor that after William’s recent unprovoked conquest of Maine, the rival claimants, Count Walter and his wife (also possible claimants to the throne of England and with a much stronger claim than William’s), had died by poison in his custody. However courteously entertained at the Norman court so far, he was in fact a prisoner, and if he refused to swear, his conditions were likely to become less comfortable. And as the effective deputy king of England, his prolonged absence would be disastrous. If he took the oath, he probably did so relying on the generally accepted belief that a forced oath was not regarded as binding. He might also have remembered Alfred’s law (the very first in his code) that, ‘If a man is wrongfully constrained to promise either to betray his lord or to aid an unlawful undertaking, then it is better to be false to the promise than to fulfil it.’ No wonder that on his return the king is reported by Eadmer as saying reproachfully, ‘Did I not tell you that I knew William and that your going might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?’xix Such an explanation makes perfect sense of the expression on the king’s face in the Tapestry and of Harold’s abject stance.

In considering this, one may also bear in mind the close connection that both the Tapestry and Eadmer had with Canterbury (Eadmer certainly and the Tapestry probably), and the possibility of some now unknown connection between the two accounts and also, of course, the fact that Eadmer was writing with the benefit of hindsight. If no hostages were ever given to William by Edward (we only have William of Poitiers’ word that they were), and Wulfnoth was imprisoned by William on a different or later occasion, then Eadmer’s version would fall to the ground. But there may be reasons for giving some credence to Eadmer’s account. It has been suggested by Harold’s biographer, Ian W. Walker, that Bishop Æthelric of Sussex, who was consulted by Eadmer over his life of St Dunstan, may well have been the Æthelric of Christ Church, Canterbury, whose election as archbishop was rejected by King Edward in 1050 in favour of Robert of Jumièges. If so, he was a relation of the Godwin family; and if so, this connection would have allowed Eadmer access to a relative of Harold’s when he wrote his account of the events of 1064, giving his version some authority.xx At the very least it implies the existence in Canterbury, and possibly further afield, of a reasonably plausible account of events that might reconcile Eadmer’s history with the Tapestry.

Whichever version comes nearest the truth, William appears to have equipped himself in advance with, according to Goebbels, the best ingredient for propaganda – the big lie consistently told: that the kingdom had been promised to him by King Edward (possibly not altogether a lie but certainly not proved and in any case not a valid promise), and that Harold had freely and voluntarily sworn on the bones of the saints to uphold his claim to it. William was to use his advantage skilfully.

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